Herman Cain, sexual harassment, and 10 lessons for employers

November 1, 2011
By Eric B. Meyer on November 1, 2011 7:00 AM | | Comments

hermancain.jpegSpeak into a microphone and point one finger in the air if your Halloween completely sucked.

Politico has reported that the National Restaurant Association paid out a five-figure settlement to two women who accused Herman Cain of making sexually suggestive comments.

Details on the allegations and lessons that employers can learn from this after the jump...

* * *

Here are the details on the story, from the Politico article:

During Herman Cain's tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO.
The sources -- including the recollections of close associates and other documentation -- describe episodes that left the women upset and offended. These incidents include conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association's offices. There were also descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship.

The women ... signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association. The agreements also included language that bars the women from talking about their departures.

Yesterday, Cain told Fox News yesterday that he has never sexually harassed anyone. He further added that the National Restaurant Association investigated the accusations and deemed them baseless. Finally, Cain mentioned that he had no idea if the Association had reached a settlement with his accusers.

How should employers address internal complaints of unlawful harassment?

While these sexual harassment allegations will, no doubt, take their toll on the Cain campaign, we'll never know exactly what happened between Cain and these women. Should anyone within your organization complain about inappropriate workplace conduct -- whether perpetrated by a co-worker or a C-Suite executive -- the steps you take to respond can mean the difference between a one-off and a bad lawsuit. 

Your first line of defense is generally your supervisors and managers. They often receive the complaints and, consequently, you must train them how to respond appropriately. Here are 10 supervisor do's and don'ts:

Do's:

    1. Take the complaint seriously.
    2. Ascertain if there are third parties present who could be affected by the behavior or whether the alleged harasser singled out the victim.
    3. Immediately and objectively document the complaint and/or any other information in connection with the complaint.
    4. Forward the complaint to the Human Resources.
    5. Provide support for both the victim and the harasser until further instructed otherwise.

Don't:

    1. Ignore or trivialize the behavior.
    2. Blame the victim.
    3. Focus on the intent of the alleged harasser (what matters is the impact of the behavior)
    4. Try to investigate the complaint without first bringing the matter to the attention of HR or an individual whose role it is to address such issues.
    5. Rush to judgment about whether certain behavior did or didn't occur.

How complaints are initially received often sets the tone for the remainder of the investigation. When victims conclude that the company is taking complaints seriously, regardless of the outcome, they are less likely to sue.