Column: Inappropriate – At Any Level

Highly-publicized harassment case should give all employers fair warning

We all know that sexual harassment is prohibited by state and federal law.

Thanks to years of training seminars, smaller group sessions and one-to-one conversations conducted by Human Resource managers and consultants, gone forever are the days when one could claim with a straight face that he or she did not know where innocent conversation ended and inappropriate action began. Sexual harassment still exists in the workplace; however, today it can assume more subtle forms. Often, comments are made that have double meanings so that the speaker falls back on the non-offensive interpretation. The end result is that HR professionals have to conduct thorough investigations in order to ensure that they get the true story. It is not uncommon for investigators to find out about far more than the alleged sexual harassment.

Nothing exemplifies the need for a thorough HR investigation more than the recent resignation of Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd. In June of this year, a female contractor for HP contacted the company's board of directors with allegations that Hurd sexually harassed her. The board ordered an investigation into the specific allegations. While all of the specifics have not been disclosed, we know the board, based on the investigation, determined that Hurd showed poor judgment which they felt impaired his ability to effectively lead HP. Although the board concluded that his conduct did not amount to sexual harassment, it still concluded that Hurd should resign immediately and a search for a permanent replacement should begin immediately.

The investigation reportedly uncovered evidence that Hurd submitted several personal expenses relating to the contractor looking for reimbursement. HP concluded that Hurd filed what the board found to be inaccurate expense reports in an effort to hide his relationship with the contractor. In the end, the personal contact with the contractor and the alleged financial irregularities were too much for HP, and Hurd ultimately resigned.

Hurd's example is a reminder to HR professionals that they need to review all of the facts before reaching a conclusion. Depending on the specific circumstances, it would have been easy for HP to focus on just the sexual harassment investigation and ignore the expense report irregularities and alleged attempt to cover up the personal relationship between Hurd and the contractor. Instead, the investigators reportedly followed up on all of these issues and presented them to the board.

During an HR investigation, there is often opposition from coworkers who might be wondering why management is allocating employee time and company resources to look into an allegation of sexual harassment. Often there are camps in the workplace with employees taking sides in the dispute. HR professionals need to stay the course and conduct a thorough investigation, since, as was the case of Hurd at HP, you are likely to find out more than you bargained for.

Clark County resident Clarence Belnavis is a partner at the Pacific Northwest office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. Contact him at 503.205.8045 or cbelnavis@laborlawyers.com.

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