Tallahassee Democrat Features Op-Ed by Partner Linda Bond
10.09.07TALLAHASSEE, FL – When legal victories makes national headlines, news organizations often turn to experienced professionals for added insight. In the wake of a decision in the sexual harassment case against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell Partner Linda Bond drafted an op-ed citing what companies everywhere could learn from the Knicks’ case.
Linda’s op-ed ran in the October 9, 2007 editition of the Tallahassee Democrat.
To read Linda’s interesting and insightful op-ed, simply click the above link or scroll down this page.
Article published Oct 9, 2007
Companies can learn from Knicks case
By Linda Bond
The much-publicized $11.6 million sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal judgment against New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden highlights the need for organizations to develop and implement comprehensive policies and procedures defining inappropriate employee behavior. Though no organization is entirely immune from an individual's inappropriate actions, taking the time to develop such policies can prove instrumental in allowing companies to take decisive action following such an incident.
Take, for instance, Thomas' use of derogatory language directed toward his accuser, marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders. At one point during the proceedings, it was suggested that the names Thomas (an African-American) called Browne Sanders (also an African-American) should not be deemed inappropriate because they carry a different meaning when exchanged between people of their specific race.
As an employer, it is important to realize that policies should be race- and gender-neutral. It is never appropriate for men or women or persons of the same race to direct derogatory terms to one another, regardless of an individual's race or gender. The idea that such behavior is generally accepted is fallacy. Even in cases in which such language is exchanged in a joking manner, even between groups of men or women or persons of the same race, such behavior should not be tolerated.
Equally as important as creating a clear and comprehensive harassment policy is ensuring employees are adequately trained. After all, what good is a rule if nobody knows it exists? Once acceptable policies and procedures are adopted, it is the company's responsibility to educate its employees.
In the event an employee acts inappropriately despite having acknowledged the policies in place, the employer has an obligation to take action against the employee or bear the brunt of liability for the employee's continued misbehavior. The individual may also face liability for their actions.
One of the key components of Browne Sanders' lawsuit is that, after she complained about Thomas' inappropriate conduct, she was fired, bringing about the question of retaliation. An organization should never take action against an employee solely in response to a complaint the employee filed. To help prevent potential wrongful dismissal suits, companies should build into their policies - and strictly adhere to - language indicating that retaliation will not be tolerated.
The key word surrounding this topic of harassment in the workplace is action. It is the responsibility of the company to take action in developing and implementing well-defined harassment policies and procedures, and then educating its employees. Employees who then decide to take inappropriate action will be reprimanded in accordance with the guidelines outlined by the organization. Taking action before a problem surfaces can help ensure a company is absolved of liability, should a situation like Thomas' occur down the road.
Linda Bond, a partner at Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, devotes her litigation practice to the representation of employers in the private and public sectors in matters involving employment and labor issues. She works out of the firm's Tallahassee office.