If you are taking the time to read this blog, my guess is that as an employer you are trying to do the right thing. You may have even invested in a good personnel manual, with a solid harassment prevention and anti-discrimination policy that you update on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, as the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (“Dr. Pepper”) recently learned the hard way, this may not be enough.
In Jones v. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the plaintiff—a temporary employee—alleged that she was a victim of sexual harassment. The plaintiff worked at Dr. Pepper’s manufacturing facility from March 2011 to October 2011. She was re-hired as a temporary employee in January 2012 and converted to a regular employee a month later in February 2012. She resigned shortly thereafter, in March 2012. Upon her resignation, she cited a number of sexual harassment incidents involving supervisors and shift leaders who were employed at the manufacturing facility, all of which occurred before she became a regular employee.
Dr. Pepper defended against the lawsuit by pointing out that the plaintiff was given an Employee Handbook that detailed the reporting procedure for such violations. Dr. Pepper argued that because it implemented an anti-harassment policy it could not be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. (While it is always a good defense to point out that you have a good harassment/discrimination prevention policy and that you have effectively communicated the policy to your employees, the no-vicarious-liability defense typically is only available where, as here, the alleged perpetrators are not the plaintiff’s direct supervisors).
The court rejected Dr. Peppers’ defense, and essentially held that merely implementing a policy is not enough. To be effective, employees must be aware that the policy exists. In this case, it was undisputed that the plaintiff never received training specific to sexual harassment in the workplace. Additionally, all of the alleged sexual harassment incidents occurred prior to the plaintiff receiving the Employee Handbook outlining the reporting policy. Therefore, the plaintiff was not sufficiently made aware of remedies available to her under the policy.
This case serves as a great reminder not to rest on your laurels. Just drafting a policy is not enough. You must effectively communicate the policy to your people – through the handbook dissemination and through regular training. You also need to update the policy on a regular basis. Keep in mind that if you employ temporary or seasonal employees you must ensure that your non-regular staff also is fully aware of your policy and receives sufficient training. It takes a little financial investment to do this right—but to do it wrong can cost way more than a little.