BFV Perspectives, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Jan 27, 2013

Struck Out: FAMU Baseball Coach To Be Fired Amid Sexual Harassment Claim

Florida A&M baseball coach, Willie Brown, is being terminated following allegations that he hazed and harassed a player because of the player’s sexual orientation.  Various news reports state that action is underway to dismiss Brown based on these allegations.

Whether Brown is actually innocent or not, his termination for alleged sexual harassment is not an isolated occurrence.   Harassment continues to be a problem in the world of sports, as in all other industries.  Throughout the past few years, there have been notable terminations, lawsuits and settlements based on claims of sexual harassment in collegiate and professional sports.  Here is just a sampling:

  • In the fall of 2012, University of Iowa associate director of athletics students services, Peter Gray, resigned following an internal report that accused him of violating the university’s sexual harassment policy.
  • In 2011, the University of Texas paid $400,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint against Cleve Bryant, former associate athletics director for football operations.  Bryant was terminated for his conduct.
  • In 2008, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former soccer player against coach Anson Dorrance for $385,000.
  • In 2007, Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden settled a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former team executive who was awarded $11.6 million by a jury.

An important lesson to be learned from these cases is that merely having personnel policies that prohibit harassment is not enough to either deter bad behavior, or to adequately protect an institution or company against lawsuits.  Furthermore, case decisions make clear that companies that fail to train their staff about fair employment practices do so at their peril and may be subject to punitive damages.

Given the economy and the fact that discrimination charge filing is at a historical high, effective training is more important than ever. Terminated employees who cannot find new jobs are more inclined to resort to litigation.  Given this landscape, business operators should be especially sensitive to employee relations and ensuring that the workplace is free of harassment and discrimination.  Here are three practical steps a company should take to help avoid litigation:

  1. Implement sound EEO and anti-harassment policies.  To be effective, any anti-harassment policy should do the following:  identify prohibited conduct, contain an easy to understand complaint procedure, provide alternative avenues to lodge a complaint, state what discipline will be issued if there is a finding of harassment, and prohibit retaliation against anyone who lodges a complaint or who participates in an investigation of a complaint.
  2. Conduct harassment and EEO training at least once each year.  It is important that employees understand the harassment policy and their obligations under the policy.  It is also critical that a company be able to show that it takes its harassment policy seriously.  Annual training helps accomplish both of these needs.  There is tremendous value in educating employees about the company’s values and, in particular, its commitment to preventing harassment in the workplace.
  3. Keep attendance records of training sessions.  If you conduct harassment training, make sure that every employee in attendance signs an attendance sheet or is otherwise documented as present.  It is not uncommon for a plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit to claim that the employer failed to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment and/or that the plaintiff was victimized because he/she did not know how to lodge a complaint.  Proof that the plaintiff actually attended a sexual harassment training session (such as an attendance sheet) will go a long way to undermine the plaintiff’s credibility and show that the company acted responsibly.

Sexual Harassment claims can be extremely costly to defend and can result in significant liability.   They can also be the ruin of organizational and personal reputations.  Taking proactive measures to guard against harassment claims is a prudent way to avoid the embarrassing headlines and to protect your business against harassment.

BFV Perspectives, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Jan 27, 2013
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.