The Meter is Running
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Boards might be afraid of staffers harassing residents, but more often the conflict is staff-on-staff.
AUTHORKenneth R. Jacobs, Partner, Smith Buss & Jacobs
PAGE #p. 49
What should the board’s response be when a staff member complains about sexual assault?
An assistant superintendent asked a female staff maintenance worker to sit on his desk, then he would admire her legs and ask her about her husband’s work hours. She was uncomfortable, and she complained to his supervisor. Nothing was done and she consulted a board member. The board came to us and asked, “What do we do?”
This is a civil rights violation – a discrimination complaint that could also be made to a governmental agency, so you have to show that you take this seriously. You should write a letter immediately, document that you’ve received the complaint, and say that you will investigate. We recommend that you consider bringing in an outside investigator. You may think management can handle it, but the manager may be part of the problem. Your lawyer, too, may end up defending you or might even end up as a witness, so that could be a potential conflict.
Next, consider how to discuss this situation with the staff before the investigation is completed. When you do, try to put the problem in general terms, i.e., avoid targeting individuals in general meetings. For example, you can offer mandatory sensitivity seminars on avoiding sexual harassment claims. If you find it necessary to deal with an individual offender, do so privately.
Finally, we strongly recommend that you proactively develop a written sexual harassment policy and circulate it to supervisors and employees. When we developed one for our clients and passed it on, the boards – and also the managing agents – were pleased to receive guidelines. Managing agents actually receive complaints about sexual harassment more often than you may think, and they try to deal with it on a staff level, especially in smaller buildings. These guidelines helped.
We brought in an investigator, and he conducted interviews and prepared a report with recommendations. In the case of the assistant superintendent who harassed his female co-worker, he was fired and his supervisor was disciplined. Subsequently, management held meetings with the staff to discuss examples of sexual harassment in the workplace. The woman who made the complaint is now documenting everything that she has to do as part of her job, since she is now highly sensitive to performing in a “hostile work environment.”
When board members think of sexual harassment, they usually worry about a board member harassing a prospective purchaser, or a staff member harassing a shareholder or unit-owner. In fact, what we find is that the most common sexual harassment complaints come from staff members complaining about other staff members. A co-op or a condo board may not think of itself as a business, but it is, and it has to take care of itself and protect itself the same way any other business does. Take the complaint seriously, then develop a policy to help avoid future problems.
On a practical level, another reason to act forcefully is to avoid having to deal with a governmental agency. If a governmental agency gets involved, you’re going to get tangled up in a bureaucratic web, spending hours explaining yourself and documenting what you had done in the past while they look for patterns, even if you are completely blameless.