Employer’s Effective Response to Harassment Complaint Undermines Title VII Claim.


In a case that highlights the importance of a prompt and effective response to complaints of harassment or discrimination, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit tossed an employee’s Title VII claims.

Background of Case. In McKinney v. G4S Government Solutions Inc., a security officer working for a subcontractor at an army ammunition plant was allegedly subjected to harassment over a period of years, consisting of racist comments, a noose, and co-workers using a white sheet to mimic a KKK hood. Although his employer’s policy stated that complaints should be made to a supervisor, manager or corporate Human Resources, he complained of the noose and sheet incidents only to a non-employee ranking officer at the plant.

A senior VP of his employer was informed of the complaint, met with the security officer, apologized, affirmed that the company prohibited such conduct, and stated that there would be an investigation. He gave the security officer his card and personal cell phone number, and told him to call if there were any other concerns. The VP then arranged for HR to conduct an employee census regarding employee morale, ethics violations and leadership issues.

During the census, the HR representative was told of the employee’s complaint, and conducted an investigation. The security officer was assured that there would be no retaliation, and the individuals involved in the alleged harassment were warned to treat the security officer with respect. Nonetheless, the security officer claimed that he was subjected to retaliation, including being asked if he was going to quit, damage to his car, being micromanaged, and being excluded from meetings.

While the investigation was ongoing, the prime contractor informed the subcontractor that it wanted the project manager, a subcontractor employee who happened to be the primary harasser, removed from the project. The project manager was then terminated by the employer. As for the other allegations, the individuals involved denied that they had engaged in the supposed harassment. Nonetheless, they were required to undergo diversity training.

Since then, the security officer received two promotions with raises. He acknowledged that he had not been subjected to any further harassment, and that the VP continued to check in with him.

The Court’s Ruling. The court first noted that the security officer had not been subjected to any tangible employment action on which a Title VII claim could be based, in that the actions about which he complained did not affect his salary, benefits or work responsibilities. In fact, he had received favorable employment actions – promotions with raises.

The court also determined that the actions taken by the employer in response to the complaint were appropriate. Under Title VII, the employer is required to take reasonable steps to stop harassment. Given the dispute over whether the individuals engaged in the alleged conduct, the court deemed the diversity training to be “prompt and proportional.”

Of particular interest, the security officer had alleged that the employer’s response was inadequate because the project manager was fired at the request of the contractor, and not solely in response to his complaint. The court stated that even if the employer had mixed motives for its actions, the issue before the court was “the effectiveness of an employer’s remedial action, not the motivation underlying it.”

The court also noted that the security officer had unreasonably failed to utilize the complaint procedure implemented by the employer, in that he never brought his concerns to a supervisor, manager or HR. Instead, his only complaint was to a non-employee.

Lessons Learned. As discussed further in the Top Tip below, the employer’s actions in this case provide a helpful model for preparing for and responding to harassment claims. Taking such actions can help an employer address concerns appropriately when they arise and hopefully avoid litigation. But if litigation ensues, these actions will also help an employer avoid liability.