As you may know, I am a die-hard management-side lawyer. I usually cheer judicial opinions that uphold the rights of employers, which I feel are too often constrained by well-meaning but easily-abused employment laws. But every now and then, even my management-side soul can be a little surprised by a judge’s pro-employer ruling. This was the situation in the recent case of Dawson v. Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

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Allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by top officials are not new, nor are lawsuits or threats of lawsuits based on those allegations.  Wise companies take such matters seriously and, if they conclude that the allegations have merit, take action not just to resolve the matter with the complaining party but to root out the problem so it does not reoccur.  Fire the offender, change the culture and move forward.
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It has become an all too familiar story in this age of #MeToo (although this one has a twist, as you’ll see below): a supervisor using managerial authority to pressure a subordinate to give sexual favors. In this story, the employee claims the pressure started at hire, involved the supervisor demanding attention, favors, gifts and even food then escalating to demands for sex in the office. The employee needed the job and ultimately concluded that sex was the only performance metric that mattered because the clear implication was that the supervisor would ruin the employee if the employee did not comply.
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Before I became a lawyer or even considered the profession, I was a waitress. I also was a feminist.  I was 18 and working at a restaurant In Providence RI.  Ronnie’s Rascal House!  One of the line cooks constantly called me “honey, baby and sweetie.”  Every time I put an order check on the wheel and spun it to him into the kitchen, he said it. One day I had had enough and I said, “I am not your honey or baby or sweetie.”  I snapped those words. He looked at me stunned and said, “I am sorry. I had no idea.”  After that we became very good friends.
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I was perusing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recently released Volume 2 of its 2018 Federal Digest of Equal Employment Opportunity Law (yes, I know I need some better hobbies), and noticed an article entitled, “Assessing Workplace Harassment Prevention Methods Through Comparisons With Similar Crime Prevention Strategies.” The article posits that “[b]y comparing harassment prevention strategies to similar crime prevention efforts, for which empirical research already exists, the EEOC hopes to identify useful tools for preventing workplace harassment.” Well, that struck me as an interesting, if somewhat questionable, approach. But let’s look at what the EEOC says.
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I have a friend who is a high school biology teacher. A few years ago, her class dissected a sheep’s brain. After class, one of her students confessed to her that he had licked the brain!!! (I’ll pause here for a moment so you can wrap your own brain around that….) Unsurprisingly, this caused an immediate uproar. The school nurse was appropriately concerned about possible health issues (prions that can cause horrific diseases, poisonous chemicals, etc.). On the other hand, an administrator questioned whether my friend had failed to preemptively instruct her students NOT TO LICK THE BRAIN. Um, what? I think we can agree that is one of those things that is so glaringly obvious you should not have to spell it out as a general matter.
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As a minority female, I have had my share of being harassed, and I have felt rage at the unfairness. I completely understand the desire to lash out at the harasser. But actually burning them with a cigarette? Well, that crosses the line (unless, of course, the harasser is threatening physical harm. Then, all bets – and gloves – are off!) But that’s what one employee did, and yet she was surprised when the employer fired her for it.
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Emojis and emoticons, which we all use to add flavor and emotion to dry, text based communication on our phones, emails, or Facebook messages, have become points of contention in a variety of legal disputes. (For those of us not in the know, emoticons are created from a standard computer keyboard while emojis are more commonly used when texting or using social media.) This phenomenon should not be too surprising, as there are now an estimated 2,600 emojis (and counting) and they are so commonly used that emojis even had their own feature film this summer, The Emoji Movie (albeit to questionable reviews).
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I am a luddite (meaning that I fear technological change) and am wholly inept when it comes to my smartphone. I know it can do many marvelous things of which I am unaware – but apparently it has a darker side as well, as illustrated by a recent case, Lee v. Trees, Inc. In that case, the court threw out an employee’s Title VII lawsuit because she had submitted fabricated texts, supposedly from her supervisor, to support her claims of sexual harassment and retaliation.
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Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced it was offering a training program on respectful workplaces as an alternative to traditional harassment prevention training. This training was developed following the issuance of the Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, The press release included a quote from EEOC Acting Chair and Co-Chair of the Select Task Force Victoria Lipnic that stated, “These trainings incorporate the report’s recommendations on compliance, workplace civility, and bystander intervention training. I believe the trainings can have a real impact on workplace culture, and I hope employers make use of them.”
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