The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced last month it entered into a $4.4 million settlement agreement with Uber Technologies over claims of sexual harassment.

Concerns about Uber’s culture came to a head in February 2017 when a female former engineer with the company blogged about her experience. Her account revealed a shocking disregard for the rights of employees to be free from harassment and an embarrassing allegiance to management.

In the blog, she wrote that after the first couple of weeks of employment, things started to get “weird” when her manager messaged her about his “open relationship” and his difficulties finding new partners. He told her he was trying to stay out of trouble at work, but he “couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.” She took screenshots of the communications and blogged about her efforts to report the manager’s misconduct to human resources.

She claims she was told “by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ [for instance had stellar performance reviews from his superiors] and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”

The response from HR, if true, was entirely unacceptable.

After learning that several other women had complaints against this manager, and after her complaints to HR led to a statement that she was the problem, she chose to leave the company.

Her blog led to the CEO tweeting that anyone engaging in such behavior would be “terminated immediately.” The blog also led to an investigation by an outside firm and the termination of 20 people.

Employers trying to determine what a multimillion-dollar lawsuit looks like need only look to Uber. Too often, HR wants to be strategic but is not willing to get into the weeds of basic legal compliance. No one can be above your policies or the law. A great performer has no greater right to a job than anyone else.

Businesses need to do three things to avoid being exposed like Uber:

  • Implement and communicate a solid and broad anti-harassment policy that goes beyond the legalities of a hostile work environment. Employees should have multiple avenues to complain.
  • Train all managers, and ideally employees too, around harassment, discrimination and workplace bullying. Conduct live and interactive training that focuses on clearly articulating inappropriate behaviors, not mere check-the-box compliance.
  • Take every complaint seriously. If it is against someone “important,” consider retaining an outside consultant/attorney to investigate to avoid any perceptions of bias.

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Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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