May 13, 2008

Sexual Harassment In the Air At the Weather Channel

A former anchorwoman at the Weather Channel has apparently won an arbitration award in her sexual harassment case against the station, and now wants to use that award to go after her harasser -- and former coanchor -- personally for damages. The Weather Channel has other ideas: It wants to keep the arbitration award under wraps, especially while it's up for sale. According to Hillary Andrews' complaint, she was subjected to almost constant harassment by her coanchor, Bob Stokes, during her stint on the station. She claims that Stokes made crude sexual remarks, asked about her sex life, commented on her clothing, leered at her, and, when she responded negatively to his efforts, insulted her on the air and tried to sabotage her work. After Andrews complained to station management, she claims she was given lousy assignments, including the overnight shift. Andrews also says that her predecessor on the job was subjected to similar behavior, including retaliation after complaining. Andrews filed an arbitration claim in 2006. Although the arbitration decision is still confidential, Andrews' lawsuit states that it was highly critical of Stokes and the station, and that Stokes was fired the day after the decision was entered. When Andrews sought to use the decision in her tort lawsuit against Stokes, however, she claims that the station threatened to sue her and her lawyer personally. That's why she had to file a separate lawsuit asking a federal court to confirm the arbitration award and make a formal ruling that it doesn't have to be kept secret. This case has a lot of twists that are a bit unusual, including that it was initially handled through arbitration (perhaps because Andrews was contractually required to do so), a lawsuit against an individual (presumably, one whose pockets are deeper than the average accused harasser), and an employer that really wants to fly under the radar, at least while it's for sale. But the lessons of the case for employers are the same as in any harassment case:
  • Handle harassment when it first comes up. The largest damages claims are awarded against employers when they have ignored previous complaints -- and the awards only go up against an employer who takes the extra step of actually punishing previous victims.
  • Don't retaliate. Punishing employees who come forward with complaints is a sure-fire way to anger jurors, judges, and apparently arbitrators as well. It also gives many complaining employees the incentive they need to go to court or arbitration. Retaliation threatens the complaining employee's job, reputation, and career opportunities; it's no wonder that this is often the final straw.
  • Make your response to harassment the story. In this case, it looks like the station tried to protect a popular anchor by ignoring complaints. As a result, an employer that really doesn't want bad publicity right now has found itself in the headlights. A better approach? Handle the harassment appropriately after the first complaint, then explain that you won't tolerate harassment and strive to run a positive workplace for all employees. It's a much better story line for employers, viewers, and potential buyers alike.

To learn more about protecting your employees and your company from illegal harassment and discrimination, see The Essential Guide to Handling Workplace Harassment & Discrimination, by Deborah C. England (Nolo).

Lisa Guerin