How far should I take this complaint?
September 14, 2011 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Should I press charges for sexual harassment? The owner of the company has stated that he will back me if I pursue this. I want to know what to expect and any experience anyone has with a similar situation. Also please note this is not an idle accusation -- this person was the GM and fired recently for stealing commissions from employees. Not a good guy.

I have been working for a small company getting established in the area (they have about 10 locations in other states). The owner was the one who hired me when he first started up the location here. At the time, he said the GM was temporary until they found someone better for the position. The GM was running all aspects of the business with a limited number of employees. This was an on-call, commission-based job, so I depended on him for the work I got and also would see him when I went in to pick stuff up (deliveries) and often he would be alone in the office at the time.

One time when I went in to pick up a paycheck, he made some comments about my appearance (nothing crude, but definitely indicated that he was appreciative) and looked me up and down. This alone made me feel uncomfortable, but then he engaged in small talk and asked me out for drinks (which I declined). My mom called so I took it as my excuse to get out of there -- he then called me after I had left to kind of follow up on the drink suggestion.

After that, every time I was in the office alone with him, I felt like he was looking at me... "differently." Like there was a sexual appreciation rather than just a normal look. This didn't happen when other people were there. Since I felt so uncomfortable around him, I didn't want to be around him and this had a negative effect on my work (basically made me not want to work). Since when they had deliveries, we had the option not to come in, I could decline work when I was called. The only bad thing about saying we were unavailable is that would put us further down on the list of who got called when there was work (as "less reliable/available"). I also stopped calling in to see if there was work, which was something I had done a lot previous to this incident. (Calling in, even if there wasn't work, put my name higher on the list of who got called because he knew I would be available.) I'm not trying to claim a specific amount of money that I would have made if this hadn't happened, but just that it had a harmful impact on me.

Now, the other thing to know about this guy is that he got caught stealing commissions from the drivers. He was doing all the paperwork, and was logging some in his name (at least a few thousand dollars over about 2 months). The owner flew in to investigate because (according to him) he never has people quit or complain about not making enough money. That's when he found out what the GM had been doing, fired him promptly, called everyone in to get paper evidence about what the GM had been doing (basically go through boxes of turned-in slips) and get the stolen money back. The GM also destroyed some of the paper trail, but not enough.

When I mentioned that there had been some sexual harassment from the GM, the owner said I should file a formal complaint, and when I did this, told me he would back me 100% if I want to carry forward with pressing charges. I am normally the type to let something like this slide, but I feel like this guy deserves it. Plus he really creeped me out.

What I need to know is, if I do carry forward with charges, what should I expect? I am concerned because I am working and in school, and if this is going to be a huge time commitment, I don't want my grades to suffer because of it. If anyone has a personal anecdote, I would really appreciate that. I'm not asking for specific legal advice, but anyone having general knowledge of how this works would be great, too.

Also, anon e-mail:
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I offer advice from the "what might it do for me" perspective.

One thing that pursuing a case would do is help you reclaim some of your...mojo, for lack of a better word. The few times that I"ve been either the victim of a crime or been screwed over by someone, no matter what my filing a report did in terms of concrete outcome, it had a very big emotional benefit: it kept me from feeling helpless. There've been a couple times when the report I filed actually achieved something, and there've been times that it didn't do jack shit -- but at least I had done something, and I was doing something to fight back, dammit, and that went a long way towards helping me recover; I wasn't the frail innocent victim, I'd started to fight back.

that in and of itself can be a big help. In your case, it sounds like you're already pretty "oh no he DIDN'T" in terms of attitude, though, so you may already be at the "I'm not a victim, dammit" stage, but it may be something to consider.

In my roommate's case -- she'd had an incident that was far more severe (I will not elaborate for her sake), but even so all she had to do was file the initial report, then a year later they called her back in to re-interview her when they thought they had a suspect, then she was asked to testify at the trial and I think she had one other appointment. So there may not be too much time impact either (or it'll be in fits and starts -- a couple days at one point, then a long stretch of nothing and then a couple days at another point).

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:10 PM on September 14, 2011

Workplace sexual harassment cases (when not involving assault, stalking, and other illegal activities) are civil cases, in the United States.

So you would be pursuing a case against the company. Not against your former supervisor.

The first time you complained about sexual harassment, the alleged harasser was already dismissed by the firm for other matters. So if the firm would like to amend the situation, they should pay you for missed work that occurred due to what you considered a hostile work situation.

Here is a backgrounder from a nonprofit legal advocate.

I don't mean to be unsympathetic. This guy sounds like a creep and a loser, from your description. But the harassment of "he asked me out" and "he looked at me weird" is not going to meet standards if you wanted to sue your employer. When these things occur in the workplace, it's helpful (in a legal sense) if they're objected to, documented and complained about.

I'm also fairly certain the owner of the company will not (can not) assist you in making a case against his company.

I am not a lawyer. Others better informed may correct some of this information. You should talk this through with a smart, well-informed feminist legal organization.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

INAL, INAYL, etc., and I'm really sorry you had a creepy boss! Please don't read this comment as me denying you had the experience-- I absolutely believe your boss was putting out weird creepy vibes that made you want to avoid work, and that it was very detrimental to your working environment and financial circumstances as well as possibly emotionally unpleasant.

That being said, if you decide to move forward/press charges, I'm having a difficult time seeing how you would 'prove' any of this. I may be entirely wrong, but appreciative comments on your appearance, and one (admittedly prolonged) attempt asking you on a date almost certainly violate human resources guidelines, but if he never did anything afterward that left a paper trail or physical evidence, I'm not sure it would be an easy to case to argue legally. "He was leering at me/looking at me creepily" is certainly unwelcome behavior under the standards of the law, but it might be difficult to follow up with-- especially since the individual in question is already gone from the company.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:19 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Workplace sexual harassment cases. . . are civil cases, in the United States. So you would be pursuing a case against the company. Not against your former supervisor.

That's not precisely correct. Sexual harassment cases are definitely civil cases, so "pressing charges" does not mean what you seem to think that it means. If you want to go forward with this, you're talking about filing a civil suit either in court or with a number of civil rights agencies such as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights or your state Department of Labor or other responsible agency.* But that doesn't mean that one cannot bring a case directly against the former supervisor. The reason most people who are harassed sue their employing companies rather than individual harassers is because individuals generally don't have insurance which will cover this sort of tort and have no real assets to speak of. So you sue the deep pockets.

You can do this because the doctrine of respondeat superior, a species of vicarious liability, means that the company is liable for the actions of the supervisor anyway.

The owner has suggested that he's willing to concede wrongdoing here. That's... problematic, for a couple of reasons. First, he may not actually understand that this means that the company, not just the former supervisor, is on the hook. This implicates company assets and, most likely, company insurance. That gets awkward, because even if the owner doesn't want to fight this and would just as soon pay you, the insurance carrier might decide to fight you even if the owner doesn't want to. No way to tell. They're allowed to do this under the terms of their contract with the owner. Another one of those terms is that if the owner doesn't cooperate with his own defense--including not admitting liability--they can deny coverage for the claim. It's also possible that the owner doesn't have coverage for this sort of thing--it's an option not generally included in basic liability policies--which may expose him more than he knows. So it's just kind of a cluster. But he definitely needs to get in touch with his insurance company.**

Ultimately, I think your best bet is probably to talk to the owner about reaching some kind of settlement. You'll both probably want lawyers, if only to make sure that the agreement you reach is binding and that he doesn't screw himself over on insurance, but that doesn't mean that either of you needs to go to court. Most cases never go to trial, and the best plaintiff firms actually settle most of their cases without ever filing a lawsuit.

*You'll probably want to talk to a local attorney about this, because state laws can vary quite a bit here. You may have to file an administrative complaint before you're allowed to sue, for example. Look in the phone book for employment attorneys.

**Actually, he should do this anyway, because it sounds likely that there's a cognizable property loss here, and many businesses have something akin to "employee dishonesty" coverage, which is mostly focused on embezzling, but would also probably include this sort of skimming.
posted by valkyryn at 12:41 PM on September 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

Sorry for your experience with this guy. He sounds like a real douchebag. That being said, I agree with WidgetAlley in that I think you will have a tough time proving this as everything you say more so suggests just an awkward situation with a guy at work who asked you out. On the flip side, this guy's character can certainly be called "shady" given the reason he was fired. So I'm fairly certain he crossed the lines here. But just know that it's going to be a long battle and could possibly cost you a lot of money especially if you don't win the case. I'm not a lawyer so I can't really say how strong this case might be. Perhaps what you should do is talk to a lawyer or a couple of lawyers. See if they say you have a case and also see if they might be your lawyer but only receive payment if you win the case. Talking to a lawyer shouldn't cost much and many will do an initial over the phone talk for free. This way you can see whether or not you should even consider going forward. Hope this helps.
posted by ljs30 at 12:49 PM on September 14, 2011

IANAL, but I think the events you describe are not a good basis for a case. Since we only have what you've written to go on, my thinking is this:

Your issue falls broadly into the "hostile work environment" claim rather than a "quid pro quo" one. If he had said (or even strongly implied) that having a drink with him was required for some aspect of working there, that'd be quid pro quo. This guy is a creep who makes you not want to come into work. You did not attempt to address the situation as it happened. This is often a key component of hostile work environment claims- not simply that the behavior happened, but that you went to the company for help and they failed to do anything. By the time you brought it to the company's attention, it was too late to do anything about it (or, alternately, the situation had addressed itself). It's also unclear to what extent you documented any of this. Without a blow-by-blow, what you're left with is a "he said"/"she said" scenario.

Honestly, I think your boss claimed to "back you 100%" because you brought up this situation at a time when his personal anger to this guy was running high. It sounds really crappy that you had to deal with this person, but your boss was probably not realizing that he is the defendant in a workplace harassment case.
posted by mkultra at 1:07 PM on September 14, 2011

I'm not your lawyer, but I'm an employment lawyer. If you want a frank assessment of your case, get a referral to a quality plaintiff's employment lawyer. Their initial consultation will usually be free. To get a referral to a quality plaintiff's lawyer, you have a few options. First, see if anyone you know works for a law firm that has employment lawyers. One of the employment lawyers at that firm will very likely be able to refer you to a plaintiff's firm with a good reputation. Your second option (not as great, but better than picking a name from the phone book) is to call your state or local bar association. They will not be able to endorse anyone, but they should at least be able to give you a list of employment attorneys. Pick one from a firm that sounds like it's really big, call them--they'll refer you to a plaintiff's lawyer. Alternatively, just pick a name from the list.

But whatever you do, make sure the lawyer you see is someone that practices employment law.

Your case, based on the facts as you've set them out, doesn't sound terrific. But you need to hear this from someone you can actually have a conversation with, not from people like me who are getting a less than complete version over the internet. And, without spending too much time repeating what others have already said, I'll say (1) it's a substantial drawback to your case that you said nothing about this when it happened and (2) if by "press charges" you mean filing a lawsuit and/or making an adminstrative claim with a government agency (like the EEOC), it doesn't sound like it will take up a huge amount of your time and energy because unless there are significant facts you haven't shared, your case will likely not progress to trial. But if your claim has any type of merit at all, your time and energy commitment will be substantial.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:35 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

valkyryn has this covered.

as an aside, my view on this is that employees do have a duty to report sketchy behavior to their HR department, or the owner, if that's who represents HR at your small business WHEN IT HAPPENS, if only to prevent their fellow employees and future employees at this guy's next job (assuming he finds work elsewhere) from being similarly harrassed and/or exposed to a hostile work environment.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:40 PM on September 14, 2011

Whatever else goes on, you have a terrific boss there, and you should definitely see how far you can go with the company. Truly good bosses are hard to find, and it sounds like he's running his small business in a way that suggests he'll have a large business soon.
posted by davejay at 2:52 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I mean the main boss, not the GM
posted by davejay at 2:52 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

He asked you on a date. That is not sexual harassment. If, after you declined to go out with him, he stopped offering you work, spread negative gossip about you to coworkers, ever said anything remotely suggesting going out with him would improve your work status, or even changed his attitude toward you out of spite -- then you have some grounds. Not being able to cope with continuing to work with someone with an unrequited romantic interest in you is a sign of immaturity on your part, not wrongdoing on his part. Mentioning the embezzlement was not germane to your question and was simply a way for you to poison the well in hopes of eliciting a more favorable response.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 6:32 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

[please address answers towards the OP and take other side conversations to MeMail, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:22 PM on September 14, 2011

No, asking someone out isn't harassment....but LEERING (which GM did every time he saw OP) is.
posted by brujita at 9:32 PM on September 14, 2011

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