What Do You Do When an Employee Refuses to Complain?
Do you know what to do if you believe an employee was sexually harassed, but refuses to provide any details or other information? Do you have an obligation to investigate as if the employee had lodged a formal, detailed complaint? Crockett v. Mission Hospital (4th Cir. 5/30/13) provides some insight.
Stephanie Crockett worked at Mission Hospital as a radiologic technologist. Her supervisor (albeit one without the authority to hire or fire) was Harry Kemp. Following several disciplinary notices and a final written warning, Crockett asked if she could speak to Kemp. He agreed to a private conversation. Kemp insisted they meet in an unused office, expressing that he thought his office had been bugged. Then, behind closed doors, Kemp requested that Crockett remove her clothes before they spoke to prove that she wasn't wearing a wire. Crockett complied, albeit begrudgingly and through tears. Following their discussion, Kemp requested that she not tell anyone what happened.
While Crockett on a leave of absence, Kemp went to HR and accused Crockett of "flashing" him in an attempt to persuade him not to report new disciplinary violations. Crockett denied to HR that she had flashed Kemp, and further told them that he had done something "horrific" to her and was trying to cover it up. She refused to elaborate, but later told HR that the incident involved sexual advances by Kemp. She again, however, refused to provide any details. HR then interviewed at least 5 co-workers, each of whom denied seeing or hearing anything inappropriate. The hospital later terminated Crockett for admitting to having recorded conversation between Kemp and her, and conversations about patient information, in violation of hospital policy.
The appellate court affirmed the district court's dismissal of Crockett's sexual harassment claim, concluding that the hospital "exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior;" and that Crockett "unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise."
McCarthy, Jones, and Ensley immediately began an intensive investigation on February 25, 2010, after Crockett accused Kemp of "horrific" behavior toward her, despite the fact that she refused to provide any further details or information. They interviewed numerous employees and supervisors in Crockett's department, but were handicapped by Crockett's refusal to cooperate and give Mission some clue as to her complaint. Since Crockett had refused to provide any information, their attempts to investigate her claim were unsuccessful….
The uncontradicted evidence establishes that Mission met with Crockett on numerous occasions in an effort to promptly correct the situation, counseled her in the procedure for filing a formal complaint, and provided her with a copy of the sexual harassment policy, despite Crockett's unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation.
Harassment is harassment, regardless of whether the victim complains or management learns of the harassment allegations another way. A company's obligations to investigate, and, if necessary, take corrective action does not change merely because the victim won't cooperate.
For more information on how to appropriately and effectively respond to a harassment complaint, I suggest reading How NOT to respond to a harassment complaint. I also cover the topic in-depth in Chapter 6 of The Employer Bill of Rights.