Employee / Labor Relations
The continuing saga of the Jerry Sandusky case serves as a grave reminder that employers that do not act the moment that troubling information arises will lose the ability to protect against complaints and lawsuits via the defense: “we had no idea that there was a problem.”
There is evidence that as early as 1998, the Penn State police (not the town’s police dept), received a memo from a local psychologist, that one of her clients was inappropriately touched by Sandusky, and that he showed a pattern of behavior similar to that of a pedophile.1 Yet Sandusky wasn’t fired in 1998. It took 13 years and many more alleged victims, and a huge public scandal, before Penn State University took definitive action. This has cost the university more than just their reputation.
How can employers avoid such problems? They need to put into place an action plan to deal with all types of information that come to the attention of all employees. This is best done before any potentially problematic situations surface, when it is easier to be calm and clear-thinking. If any information arises that might be damaging, the employer needs to know, ASAP, and all employees need to learn how and where to report the information.
Managers and supervisory employees who learn about or witness problematic behavior must take action in order to protect the employer from liability. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two similar cases regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. 2
As a result of these cases, the Court determined that employer s are responsible for the actions of their supervisors, meaning that the supervisors are like a legal extension of the employer. The courts call this “vicarious liability.”
Employers can protect themselves from large lawsuits and bad publicity by following several steps. This involves working to prevent harassment and other inappropriate conduct up-front
1) Creating a strong policy against harassment, discrimination, assault, etc. is the first step.
2) Making sure that all employees in the company know of the policy is next.
3) Teaching all employees about their rights and responsibilities pursuant to the policy is a major component
4) Managers and supervisors also need to know how to handle situations that they witness and/or hear about through other sources.
Had the Penn State police reported what they learned about Jerry Sandusky back in 1998, and a thorough, unbiased investigation occurred, and had the powers-that-be acted appropriately upon getting the results of the investigation, it is possible that the university could have protected its reputation. By taking swift action, the university may have spared even more boys from (alleged) inappropriate contact. Firing Sandusky, reporting him to the proper authorities, offering assistance to the (alleged) victims, and providing mandatory training to all managers, supervisors, and other employees that come into contact with minors, would have been a pro-active response that might have led to an entirely different outcome.
In a tight economy, employers often cut out training for their staff, which is often seen as a “luxury.” But when it comes to informing employees about how to report potentially inappropriate workplace conduct, and teaching supervisors how to handle these situations, training often ends up saving employers in terms of morale, reputation, publicity and the bottom line.
The old saying, “Don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish” is true in this situation. Usually, “doing the right thing” is also the smartest, most fiscally-sound action an employer can take!
Dana M. Pearl is the President and founder of The HUMAN Organization, Inc., an Equal Employment Opportunity consulting business that provides training programs for all sizes and types of companies and organizations in Illinois since 1992. She is a former EEOC investigator and a former Human Resources Manager in both manufacturing and non-profit concerns. Ms. Pearl earned a BA from Northwestern University and a MBA from Loyola University. She conducts awareness and prevention training programs on various types of employment discrimination and harassment in both Spanish and English. She can be reached at 847.869.9516 and firstname.lastname@example.org" data-mce-href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org and via the website at: www.humanorganization.com.
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