Sexual Harassment HR, Attorney, and Bystander Fail

Sexual Harassment HR, Attorney, and Bystander Fail

Sexual harassment sometimes is very obvious, yet HR, attorneys, and bystanders fail to take appropriate action.

In a case decided in 2019, two women who worked at a law firm alleged that the owner, Michael Morse, sexually harassed them. The receptionist said he groped her breasts and groin area while saying things like, “you make me so hard,” and “I want to take you into my office.”

Morse allegedly approached from behind another woman, a paralegal, and grabbed her breasts in front of two other senior attorneys. She immediately removed his hands from her breasts, and later complained to HR.

Sexual harassment law requirements for HR and bystanders

The HR rep allegedly told the paralegal that as an HR rep “her number one priority [was] to protect Morse’s reputation.” The paralegal then talked to one of the attorneys who had witnessed him sexually assault her. That attorney allegedly responded, “what was I supposed to do, you know how Michael is.”

The women sued Morse for sexual assault, and the Court of Appeals ruled the case could go to trial.

Sexual harassment lessons learned

HR people—the best way to protect the owner’s reputation is to make sure he doesn’t get sued in a case that goes all the way to the Court of Appeals. It’s tough when the perpetrator is the boss, but the very least HR can do is document the complaint, warn the owner of the company, and perhaps shield the employees from interactions with him.

Bystanders—what you’re supposed to do is call the police. This is sexual assault. It’s a crime.

ln some states such as New Jersey and Hawaii, the HR person and the attorney-witnesses can be sued for aiding and abetting the harasser. And attorneys, as officers of the court who do not report crimes, may be subject to disciplinary action by the state bar.

We cover the responsibilities of HR and bystanders in our sexual harassment prevention training.

By R. Makana Risser Chai

Makana Risser Chai is a trainer, HR consultant and former Silicon Valley attorney who specializes in teaching courses on creating respectful workplaces by preventing harassment, bullying, disrespect, and unconscious bias.