Courts analyzing anti-discrimination statutes such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act mandate that employers educate employees about discrimination in the workplace and provide a way for them to complain. Then, once made aware of discrimination in the workplace, the employer must take steps that are reasonably designed to end the discrimination. That could mean anything from a verbal warning up to termination of employment. That decision is up to the employer.
In Phila. Housing Authority v. AFSCME, after investigating a complaint of sexual harassment, a unionized employer with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment fired the alleged harasser. The union subsequently filed a grievance that eventually led to arbitration, at which time the arbitrator deemed the alleged harasser’s behavior to be “lewd, lascivious and extraordinarily perverse.” Notwithstanding, the arbitrator concluded that a verbal warning would have sufficed, rather than termination, and ordered the alleged harasser reinstated and made whole.
On appeal, the PA Supreme Court blasted the arbitrator’s decision, while emphasizing the public policy against unlawful harassment in the workplace.
The issue before the arbitrator was whether there was just cause for this termination, and if not, what would be the appropriate remedy short of termination. The absurd award here makes a mockery of the dominant public policy against sexual harassment in the workplace, by rendering public employers powerless to take appropriate actions to vindicate a strong public policy. Such an irrational award undermines clear and dominant public policy.
The high court then emphasized that employers should have the discretion to determine what step(s) are most reasonably designed to discrimination in the workplace:
A public employer cannot be denied the power to impose consequences for this sort of inappropriate, and facially criminal, conduct. Indeed, with the general notion in mind that recognized rights must generally have some form of remedy, it is clear that there must be a power in public employers to take meaningful steps to vindicate dominant public policy. To allow an arbitration award which finds that an employee engaged in “extraordinarily perverse” physical sexual harassment of a co-worker, yet then simply dismisses the conduct as unworthy of an employer response beyond initial “counseling,” and reinstatement with back pay, would eviscerate the ability of employers to enforce dominant public policy.
Learn from this decision. Employers should make sure that their anti-harassment policies emphasize zero tolerance. Then, err on the side of harsher discipline. There is no place in the workplace for unlawful discrimination.