Employers need to go back to the basics in training to prevent sexual harassment and reduce big liability claims

April 3, 2021

Cumberland County, Tenn., learned an expensive lesson about creating a safe and healthy workplace for women.

It is a lesson all employers—both large and small—should take note of and learn from.

The county, located about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville, has agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed against the county for sexual harassment.

The suit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, alleged that the county allowed the director of its Solid Waste Department from at least 2015 to 2018 to “fondle, assault, proposition for sexual favors, and otherwise sexually harass 10 female employees” of the department in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The suit also alleged that the county constructively discharged one woman and retaliated against another through its “actions and failures to act.”

The retaliation complaint alleges that after one employee filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, management was told “get rid” of her, which was understood to mean she needed to be terminated.

The county, which at the time employed about 400 employees, had just hired the director, who was a former county commissioner, a few months before the harassment began.

The suit alleges that six of the 10 women were subjected to:

  • “unwelcome, non-consensual sexual contact such as kissing and grabbing their breasts, thighs, buttocks” and private area “both over and under their clothes.”
  • “unwelcome sexual advances such as propositioning women for oral or penetrative sex and forcing women to view or touch his” private area; and
  • “unwelcome and offensive sexual remarks about their bodies and sex acts.”

The director was accused of subjecting all women to unwelcome, non-consensual sexual contact, including forcibly kissing and groping them.

The director’s conduct is alleged to have happened frequently, including daily or even several times a day.

The suit alleges that the county is liable for the director’s sexual misconduct because:

  • The county lacked an effective sexual harassment policy in that it did not require supervisors to report incidents of sexual harassment and did not permit informal complaints of harassment to be made.
  • The county distributed its sexual harassment policy only to full-time employees.
  • The county provided no training on its sexual harassment policy or on the process for filing an internal complaint of sexual harassment.
  • Reports of the harassment were made to supervisors and the employees complained to the director himself, but no action was taken by the county to end the harassment.

“Some women did not complain because they were unaware of the complaint process; because they did not believe the county mayor, to whom the policy suggested they report, would be impartial based on his personal relationship with [the director]; or because they feared reprisal, such as termination,” the lawsuit said.

The former director has been indicted on criminal charges and is awaiting trial in state court, according to the Justice Department’s announcement of the settlement.

When employers consider how to prevent harassment and reduce this type of liability, they need to go back to the basics, regardless of the size of the organization. Any employer with 15 or more employees is subjected to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Cumberland County, which has a population of just 56,000 residents, failed in every respect to create a safe and healthy workplace for these women.

Too often employers find it unimaginable that anyone could behave like the director in this case or that it won’t happen in their small community or workplace.

As this case and many others illustrate, it does happen and too often.

Employers should review every organizational failure identified in this case and rectify breakdowns in their own organization, including policies, practices, training, and culture.