This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of OGR’s Independent magazine.
Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a trending topic in the United States. While many would like to believe that harassment is not taking place in the funeral industry, in fact, this industry has not escaped these incidents. Various lawsuits have been filed against family-owned and international funeral businesses.
Many funeral businesses understand the need to have anti-harassment policies as well as formal procedures in place for employees to report any harassment. Most anticipate they are never likely to receive such a report. (For more on preventing workplace harassment, read part 1 and part 2 from our blog on this very topic.) However, the reality is that any funeral business may receive a complaint from an employee about experiencing sexual harassment while working.
Frequently, such complaints catch owners and managers completely off guard, and they stumble when they attempt to deal with the situation. This may put them at greater risk for a costly lawsuit. So how does a funeral home owner or manager handle a complaint of sexual harassment?
How a business handles a sexual harassment complaint can have a significant impact on the outcome. Take for example the Massachusetts case of Emma Gyulakian versus Lexus of Watertown, Inc. filed in January 2013. The original jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Emma, finding that defendants were liable for $40,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. After multiple appeals by the defendants, in August 2016, the state’s high court affirmed the jury’s award. This decision appears to be based on two key factors:
- Despite notification by Emma of her supervisor’s (the alleged harasser) behavior, his manager simply didn’t believe her and did not take any action. In fact, she complained multiple times and no action was taken.
- After Emma was terminated, she once again stated she had been harassed, and an investigation was conducted. Both the jury and the judges indicated that the investigation was essentially a sham.
This case provides a valuable lesson for all employers regardless of industry; 1) investigate every complaint and 2) have a formal and well-crafted investigative process.
It is important to realize upfront that investigating sexual harassment complaints is not easy. It tends to be an embarrassing situation for all parties involved or questioned. Not only are the employees involved in the investigation going to be uneasy, but the individual responsible for undertaking the investigation may be sensitive to how the outcome of the investigation may impact their relationship with employees or management. To facilitate this difficult process, funeral home owners/managers can follow several key steps:
- Have an investigative plan
- Establish what evidence can be gathered that will either support or counter the complaint
- Prepare for interviews
- Conduct interviews – Stress confidentiality
- Retain all documentation
- Reach a conclusion
- Write a final report
We’ll discuss each of these in next week’s post.
Stephanie Ramsey is the HR Specialist for The Foresight Companies, LLC one of OGR’s Supply Partners. She has a unique perspective on the challenges funeral and cemetery business owners and managers face when dealing with employee issues. She has written many employee handbooks and other job-specific documents for clients nationwide. Stephanie writes a quarterly newsletter on HR matters that can be viewed at http://www.f4sight.com. She can be reached at Stephanie@f4sight.com.