The Importance of Supervisory Response to Serious Allegations

One of the things I teach in my classes is that a supervisor must respond to allegations of misconduct — even if they are hearsay, coming to the supervisor via second or third hand. Supervisors should ask themselves the following question: “If the allegations just presented to me were true, would I take action?” If the answer to this question is “yes,” then it’s incumbent upon the supervisor to investigate the allegations, determine what happened, and take any corrective action warranted. 

If the allegations involve any of the EEO protected classes – race, national origin, sex, age, disability, and so forth – the stakes are high. Without adequate corrective action, the agency could be liable for creating a hostile work environment, e.g. sexual harassment, racial harassment, or religious harassment. 

A Veterans Affairs unit recently learned this the hard way. In Complainant v. Robert McDonald, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, Agency, (Appeal No. 0120123232; Agency No. 200J05062011104171) decided on May 21, 2015, the EEOC found the agency liable for sexual harassment because the first line supervisor failed to take corrective action, even though higher levels of supervisors did respond quickly and appropriately. 

In this case, a human resources officer reported to her immediate supervisor that another VA employee, a housekeeper who was assigned to clean her office, physically touched her in a sexual way, by leaning over her and rubbing against her. The Complainant told him to stop and a coworker who observed the interaction also told him to stop. The Complainant then went immediately to her supervisor and reported the incident. 

The first level supervisor told her that she would have to deal with the incident herself by talking to the housekeeper’s supervisor or directly to the housekeeper. The following day, the Complainant reported the incident to her third level supervisor. This manager recognized the seriousness of the incident and took immediate corrective action. As a result, the housekeeper received a 5-day suspension for inappropriate conduct, and the employee’s immediate supervisor received written counseling for failing to take corrective action. 

The employee pursued her hostile work environment complaint, appealing the VA’s denial of liability to the EEOC.  In May the EEOC found the VA liable for harassment. Its finding was premised upon the first level supervisor’s failure to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Though the EEOC acknowledged that Agency management ultimately did take corrective action; it was not enough to avoid a finding of liability. They remanded the case for remedial action, including: 1) a determination of damages for the complainant, 2) training for her immediate supervisor, and 3) consideration of disciplinary action for the supervisor beyond the written counseling he had already received. 

Through this case the EEOC clearly sent the message that all supervisors need to be aware of and heed the responsibility to take immediate action in the face of serious allegations.