Valid Complaint or Emotional Employee?

Cassie had been working as a legal assistant for the past year at a local law firm. She started out relatively new to the industry, and has spent her time at the firm learning everything she can about the industry with the goal of eventually moving into a paralegal position. When Daniel joined the practice as an associate attorney, he quickly took her under his wing stating that working together as a team, they could both move up within the organization. Initially, Cassie was glad to have someone to work and grow with, but Daniel seemed to have a crush on her and began behaving in ways that made Cassie increasingly uncomfortable.

When pulling an all-nighter for an upcoming court appearance, Daniel gave Cassie a backrub which she told herself was simply him being polite as they had been working for 18 hours straight and he knew she was tired. Later that week, Daniel invited Cassie out to dinner. She accepted thinking it was to discuss work, but Daniel was even more physically affectionate at this meeting, putting his hand on her lower back when they entered the restaurant and touching her hand when sitting at the table. Uncertain as to his intentions, Cassie again did not say anything.

When a paralegal position opened up later that month, Cassie immediately applied and began preparing for her interview. Daniel was on the hiring committee and informed Cassie that he could “coach” her on what to say to land the job and invited her to his home for a private training session that night. Cassie knew that this was going too far and declined; Daniel’s advances towards her and his affectionate behaviors immediately stopped. She interviewed for the position but another individual was hired for the position, and while they were more than qualified, Cassie believed her past interactions with Daniel may have played a part in the hiring decision.

Cassie discussed this with her supervising attorney who helped her file a grievance to the managing partner, claiming that she had experienced sexual harassment and quid pro quo in the workplace and when those advances were declined, was subject to further retaliation and a hostile environment.

Did Daniel’s advances warrant all these types of harassment? Since Cassie agreed to go to dinner with him, was it appropriate for him to touch her hand? Or were his advances simply inappropriate for a workplace setting, and his reactions when she refused him justified?

In the conversation she had with the managing attorney regarding the complaint she and her supervisor had filed, Cassie only stated that she felt very uncomfortable at work because of Daniel’s actions and wanted the treatment to stop. Did Cassie’s manager jump to conclusions and put words in her mouth, words that any HR Manager or member of executive management is obligated to investigate further? While Daniel’s actions at work were certainly inappropriate, he didn’t necessarily cross the line into sexual harassment, and claiming quid pro quo was a stretch as the individual who was hired was more qualified than Cassie.

There is a right and a wrong way to field and manage employee complaints. Particularly in cases of harassment, sexual or otherwise, it is vitally important that supervisors understand what questions to ask their employee to ensure that the grievance is completely accurate and that the employee is not encouraged in one way or the other to report things that are exaggerated. What should they say to get the necessary info from their subordinate? What should they avoid saying in that initial conversation? How should they respond to certain admissions? Follow along the next few weeks as we discuss the steps managers are expected to follow when an employee comes to them with a complaint or grievance.