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Investigative Failures Cost ArcelorMittal $25M in Damages

Investigative Failures Cost ArcelorMittal $25M in Damages

Employer failed to investigate hostile work environment adequately despite multiple complaints

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The $25 million verdict issued by a federal jury last week in the case of Turley v. ArcelorMittal was largely designed to punish ArcelorMittal for its shoddy investigations of Turley’s allegations of racial harassment.

What did ArcelorMittal do – or fail to do – that was so wrong? Plenty, it turns out. Here are just a few of the plaintiff’s allegations, which were mostly admitted by ArcelorMittal at trial:

Inadequate Investigation and Response

Plaintiff reported that a colleague, using racial slurs, threatened him with bodily harm and even death. The employer interviewed employees in plaintiff’s department, all of whom denied hearing the altercation. The employer failed to interview, however, the union grievance chairman who had talked to the witnesses who had heard the threats. When the colleague admitted making a threat, he was suspended for two days.

Employer’s problem: The investigation was not thorough enough. All potential witnesses need to be questioned, particularly in such a serious matter. Once the colleague confessed, the employer’s response was inadequate. Such a serious matter required termination, and perhaps a report to
the police.

Failure to Investigate

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When graffiti appeared in the department saying “no lazy people,” the employer did not investigate it because it did not think it was racially motivated. After plaintiff filed a complaint with the state EEO agency, the employer investigated.

Employer’s problem: The employer failed to recognize harassment and investigate it promptly. The failure suggests that the employer was not taking the harassment seriously, and it sent a signal to the employees that they could continue to harass without fear of reprisal.

Failure to Recognize the Obvious

When “KKK” graffiti appeared on the department wall, the manager of labor relations did not think it was racially offensive and did not investigate it, but the head of HR did. He interviewed five employees, but none had any information about the graffiti. He increased the amount of time he spent walking through the department and investigated again, but did not gather any new information. He met with employees individually to inform them that harassment would not be tolerated.

Employer’s problem: The failure of the manager of labor relations to view “KKK” as racially offensive is indefensible, and suggests that he needed to be terminated from his position. The head of HR’s response was better, but he appears to have terminated his investigations without getting information about who was responsible. This again implies that the harassment was not taken seriously.

Hostile Work Environment

When the plaintiff’s chair was covered in black grease, the employer questioned 13 employees, who all denied any knowledge of the incident. The chair was replaced. No more action was taken.

Other incidents included more graffiti, vandalism of the plaintiff’s car, disrespectful and racially discriminatory language and bullying and harassing behavior. In each case, the employer either accepted the fact that nobody had any information about the incidents, or didn’t bother to investigate at all.

Employer’s problem: An obviously hostile work environment was permitted to continue with little or no repercussions for those who created it.

$25 Million Worth of Lessons

So what can employers learn from this case?

  1. Investigate every complaint thoroughly
  2. Train all employees on what constitutes harassment,
    bullying and discriminatory behavior
  3. Foster a zero-tolerance policy for threatening,
    bullying and harassing behavior
  4. Follow up training with reminders
  5. Punish offenders consistently
  6. Monitor the workplace by interacting with
    employees daily
  7. Make clear the consequences of violating
    anti-harassment, bullying and discriminatory behavior
  8. Understand the risks that come with letting any
    of this type of behavior perpetuate

Can you identify any other lessons employers can take away from this case?