This column is based on a true story. The employees' names and many of the details have been changed to protect the innocent...or guilty.
Any similarities between this story and any experiences in your dealership are purely coincidental. The story involves someone I'll call ``Mr., But I've Always Been Like This And You Know I Don't Mean Anything By It, Lucious Legs!'' You may recognize the type.
``Pete,'' the person who called me, described the following scenario: He had been the manager for one of a tire dealership's outlets and had turned it around-from losing money into making it a well-run, money-making business. His reward was to be assigned the additional duties of another location with the goal of streamlining that operation and also improving its profitability (sound familiar?).
Setting the stage
The new business Pete was managing had the normal problems of a location in trouble...all of which he thought he could handle. However, there was one difficulty-a personnel issue involving an employee who was causing Pete an unusual amount of day-to-day trouble.
Our intrepid manager was unsure as to the best approach to take with this problem employee, whom we'll call ``Joe.'' He's described as a male who:
* had been with the company for several years.
* was a marginal performer whom the previous management had never managed.
* was an outrageous flirt.
* was in a key position.
* was well known in the office and the community.
* had some health problems.
This, then, is Joe's story.
Joe had asked his female assistant to repeatedly e-mail pornographic and other inappropriate pictures and literature over the previous few years. He also recently mentioned, in jest, about a trip he was taking and the fact there might be room for her in his luggage. And there was other ``creative banter,'' as well.
Did I mention the assistant was attractive? But then somehow you knew that, didn't you?
Previously, the assistant had never said anything to management about these comments because she had always been very appreciative of Joe. He had hired her and had been generous with her merit increases. However, his comments were becoming more frequent, and she was ``very uncomfortable in her working environment.''
Outlining the problem
The assistant called to set up an appointment with Pete, who then called me for guidance. Here is how the meeting transpired.
As the assistant reluctantly explained her situation to Pete, the new turn-around manager listened, took excellent notes and documented these facts:
* This was the company's first notice of these actions, even though the female employee knew about its Sexual Harassment Policy.
* She had never said anything to Joe to encourage-or discourage-his actions and comments.
* She ``didn't want Joe to be removed from his job but just wanted him to stop making her feel uncomfortable.''
Pete obtained an understanding of what specifically needed to be stopped in order for her to feel good about her work environment. He confirmed that the company did not condone this type of behavior and conveyed appreciation that she had brought this matter to his attention.
Pete also obtained her permission to conduct a confidential investigation with Joe regarding these matters. He assured her that she would not be subject to any retaliation and that this matter would be handled professionally. She again asked to continue to work with Joe and affirmed that she did not want him to be terminated.
Calling a meeting with Joe the next day, Pete had the woman who assisted him with human resource (HR) matters sit in with them. Joe came to the meeting not knowing the topic for their discussion. He walked in, sat next to the HR lady, squeezed her leg and said she was looking particularly good that day. (Believe me, readers, this happened-I couldn't make this up.)
Pete conducted the meeting in the following manner:
He told Joe and the HR representative that he had received a complaint regarding Joe's behavior toward his assistant. He outlined the inappropriate behavior and asked Joe for his comments.
Joe was obviously surprised. He said everyone knew he didn't mean anything by what he had said and that the e-mails were from outside associates, and he thought they were funny.
He also said he did not say anything to his assistant that he hadn't said before and that she knew he was just kidding.
Pete explained that by her bringing this to the company's attention, she had now given official notice that she wanted her work environment changed. Noting he was the store's new manager and Joe's new boss, Pete then outlined his views on the seriousness of this matter. He explained that adhering to the company's Sexual Harassment Policy was a requirement of Joe's job and therefore his continued employment.
He also gave him a copy of that policy and showed him a signed acknowledgement page that stated Joe had read, understood and would abide by it. Joe also received a copy of a sexual harassment training tape for his continued education.
Pete was very emphatic in stating Joe's behavior was unacceptable and must stop immediately. He pointed out in the policy where inappropriate e-mails and behavior would not be tolerated. Pete indicated that because Joe's assistant wanted to continue to work with him, Pete had decided to honor her request. But he told Joe all their future interactions must be strictly and completely professional.
Pete then outlined the following points, asking if Joe understood:
* what changes needed to be made.
* if there was anything Pete could do to assist Joe with these changes.
* if there was any reason Joe could not make these changes to his behavior.
* that adhering to the company's Sexual Harassment Policy was a requirement of his employment, and
* that continued problems would be grounds for termination.
Joe said he understood and would make the appropriate changes, took the policy and the tape, thanked Pete and left the office.
Pete and his HR assistant called to apprise me of what had occurred, hopeful that Joe had understood. Still, they were doubtful this would be their last encounter with him on this topic.
Then a surprise
The next development surprised them: A letter to Pete from Joe's psychiatrist arrived within days. It outlined Joe's ongoing treatment for ``mental and nervous disorders,'' which, the psychiatrist said, ``could sometimes cause him to have outbursts or make inappropriate comments.''
The doctor offered to discuss Pete's concerns regarding Joe's performance and how Joe's illness may be affecting his ability to do his job.
After I discussed this latest development with Pete, we decided not to respond to the doctor, but to go with our original plan to place in writing everything covered in the meeting with Joe.
Pete's letter to Joe specifically referred to the inappropriate behaviors and the portion of the Sexual Harassment Policy that had been violated. The letter also reiterated everything covered in the meeting with Joe and the HR person and again offered assistance if Joe felt he needed additional training. An offer was made to meet with him and his doctor if any clarification of this matter was necessary.
The other shoe drops
A few months went by during which Joe curtailed his behavior. He thanked Pete for bringing this matter to his attention, saying he knew he could have been fired and was very appreciative of the way the company had handled the matter.
Then one day, in front of a co-worker, Joe made a comment about ``Lucious Legs'' and how much he appreciated his assistant's other ``assets.'' He was later questioned and admitted to making the comment.
Because he had not followed the sexual harassment policy, he was terminated.
A charge Joe filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) arrived at the dealership within a month. It alleged Joe had been terminated based on age and that his termination was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The dealership was not surprised and responded quickly with documentation and a detailed chronology of events and affidavits. An investigation was conducted, and the agency found the company had followed their procedures and policy. The charge was dismissed.
Why did this matter go well for the company?
Company officials listened, documented and acted in a judicious, confidential manner. They were not sidetracked or intimidated by Joe's demographics or his doctor's letter.
They did not fall into a trap of not addressing the issue because of ADA concerns regarding Joe's mental and nervous disorder-or because he was over 40 and his new boss was younger.
The company stated its expectations clearly and concisely, noting where the employee's behaviors were not meeting expectations. It offered to help re-educate and train him, then outlined the consequences if he continued to not meet the requirements of his job.
Sometimes it is tedious to take the extra time needed to address an issue like sexual harassment in an orderly, focused, documented manner. Tedious...yes. But it's definitely worth it-not just from a financial standpoint, but for the overall well being of your entire work force and your business.