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Howard v. Naval Air Systems Command

A Workplace Sexual Harassment Case Mishandled by HR

Stephanie Howard was an administrative assistant at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Arlington, Virginia. Howard claims that a staff member, Randy McCall, sexually harassed her. Howard says McCall often spoke to her and touched her in a sexual manner. On March 5, 1996, Howard says McCall placed his fingers up her dress and sexually assaulted her.

After the March 5 incident, Howard wrote and delivered a letter to McCall explaining that his advances were unwanted and he had gone too far. On March 19, Howard went to speak to NAVAIR’s human resources division. While speaking with Aaron Pendleton, a Human Resources Specialist, she said, “this motherf–r put his hands on me, and I don’t like it.” She then identified McCall as her assailant.

Pendleton advised her “to write him a letter.” After she said she’d done that, Pendleton told her “to write down everything else that he … does to you if he harasses you again. Now, if he harasses you again, you need to let somebody know. You need to tell your supervisor or you need to come back to me.”

McCall continued to make inappropriate comments to Howard. Then, in November 1996, Howard says McCall cornered her and assaulted her once again. Upon hearing of this incident, Navy supervisors immediately conducted an investigation and quickly transferred McCall, thus ending Howard’s problems.

In January 1997, Howard sued NAVAIR, saying that the Navy tolerated a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. In response, the Navy asked that the case be dismissed, since it quickly took action once it learned about the problem.

The Court ruled in Howard’s favor. The Court agreed with Howard that the Navy could have been “placed on notice of the alleged harassment in March of 1996 when [Howard] spoke with Pendleton in the human resources office and that Pendleton’s response was not reasonable.”

“Pendleton responded by simply telling Howard to write McCall a letter and keep track of any future harassing behavior… He did not get to the bottom of her allegations [and did nothing] to learn the specifics… There is nothing to suggest that he spoke with McCall or others about Howard’s problem, nor is there anything to suggest an inquiry, much less an investigation of any kind.”

The Court wrote it was probably “unreasonable for Pendleton to not ask follow-up questions in an effort to determine the exact way in which McCall put his hands on Howard.” The Court explained that the “harsh language used by Howard in describing McCall and his alleged physical assault was sufficient to at least put Pendleton − an experienced human resources officer − on notice of a potentially serious workplace-harassment problem.”

Thus, “we hold that a reasonable juror could find that Howard’s comments to Pendleton were sufficient to put the Navy on notice of at least a potential hostile work environment and that the Navy’s response to that notice was negligent.”

[Howard v. Winter (4th Cir. 2006) no. 05-1258]

Protecting Your Assets Instructional Model −

How the NAVAIR HR Staff Failed to Effectively Respond

Let’s analyze what the company did wrong, using Parallax Education’s “Protecting Your Assets” model:

Training − We don’t know if the NVAIR conducted training but if they did, it was certainly ineffective.

Policies/Procedures − You better bet his behavior was against NVAIR policies.

Investigation − Upon Ms. Howard first reporting the unwanted touching, NO investigation was conducted, hence it wasn’t: Immediate, Thorough, Complete, Objective.

Conclusion − Since there was no investigation upon the first complaint, there was no conclusion.

Communication − Findings MUST be communicated to Complainant and alleged wrongdoer. Nada, nothing.

Remedy − Remedial actions must be taken − they weren’t.

Retaliation − You must guard against retaliation

Document − You must document − we don’t know if the HR person documented the meeting with Howard. She made a couple of horrible mistakes however, by not uncovering that Howard had been documenting his behavior already, AND by telling Howard to document any further behavior.

The moral of this story… DON’T do it this way!