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What Employers Can Learn from the Penn State Scandal

The surreal events at Penn State University over the past few weeks have rocked not only the sports world but, to some degree, the entire country. Although many are well versed about these events, the brief storyline is as follows. The local District Attorney in State College, Pennsylvania indicted a famed, retired assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, on allegations of sexual abuse of children. The District Attorney also indicted two other high level Penn State officials. Ultimately, these events lead to the termination of iconic football coach, Joe Paterno, and the departure of the University’s President. Without trivializing in any respect the gravity of the situation at Penn State and the apparent horrific harm done to children, the Penn State storyline has an arc that, in certain respects, is quite similar to workplace allegations of harassment.

Consequences of Ignoring Allegations are Devastating or Insidious

All too frequently in my experience, internal allegations of complaints of harassment are not effectively communicated among management level employees; and/or not taken particularly seriously; and/or not fully investigated. As appears to be the case at Penn State, many of these types of complaints get caught in a bureaucratic morass or, more simply, are swept under the rug and wished away. The consequences of such inaction or indifference, as the case may be, can be devastating (i.e., huge economic judgments as well as crushing adverse publicity) or insidious (i.e., the creation of a culture of indifference of the concerns of employees that promotes a level of distrust, anxiety and detachment, all of which can and do adversely impact the bottom line.)

Steps to Prevent a Culture of Discrimination/Harrassment

The good news is that employers can take a number of achievable, relatively easy to implement, and cost effective measures to prevent a culture of discrimination and/or harassment, and to ensure that employee issues are properly addressed. These measures include the following:

  1. Clearly communicate to all staff members that the organization has zero tolerance for harassing or abusive behavior and that such behavior will result in serious disciplinary action up to and including termination.
  2. Take complaints, and, in particular, complaints of discrimination or harassment, seriously.
  3. Adopt and implement sound EEO, anti-discrimination, and anti-harassment policies with the guidance of a professional (recycling a friend’s policy or taking one from the internet can have unforeseen negative consequences);
  4. Train managers and supervisors how to recognize discrimination and harassment, as well as how to handle formal or informal employee or third party complaints of improper behavior.
  5. Implement a process for the investigation of such complaints and seek the guidance of outside counsel when these complaints are made.
  6. Document the steps that are taken to investigate the matter to address the underlying behavior.
  7. Take appropriate remedial action against violators of the policy up to and including termination.

 

The full ramifications of the scandal at Penn State remain to be seen. That said, the sordid allegations of wrongdoing should serve as the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales for employers. Employers that believe, even in these challenging economic times, that they can sidestep or postpone (i) taking cost effective measures to implement effective EEO, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and/or (ii) conducting widespread training in order to promote a culture of tolerance and diversity -- do so at great risk, economically and otherwise. On the other hand, employers who signal at the highest levels of an organization that they take these issues very seriously and implement prudent steps (along the lines of those outlined above) are likely to reap the multiple benefits of such actions including, a reduction in employment claims; a decrease in litigation exposure; and a noticeable increase in employee productivity and loyalty.

Marc Engel is an employment and litigation attorney at Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, Maryland who advises employers of all types of employment issues, performs human resource audits, and conducts training on a variety of employment issues, including strategies for improving hiring, performance management, retention and avoiding discrimination and harassment claims. He also litigates and mediates employment and business disputes and counsels clients on litigation avoidance strategies. For more information about human resource audits or the employment practice, please contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or mrengel@lerchearly.com.

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