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Managing #METOO issues: Master the Hand-off

Blood, flying Superman leaps ending in abrasions filled with ground-in track rubber, sometimes angry words, sometimes tears, often collateral damage to other teams: botched hand-offs at track meets mean the difference between a successful race and a painful failure. I offer this visual metaphor demonstrating what happens to employers who fail to complete harassment investigations fully and promptly!

Every runner on a relay team is responsible for completing his part of the race. If he fails, that failure can wipe out the good efforts of the runners who preceded him and may prevent the runners who would follow from participating at all. Every runner must hand off when he has finished his "job."

Employment litigation and other disputes are rife with liabilities that started with a botched exchange. People wait too long to pass along news that a complaint has been made. Others delay moving forward because they are afraid to hear what witnesses may say if asked. Others fail to hand off important information or, having that, drop the baton on ever taking action to fix any problems identified. In this era of heightened awareness and sensitivity to harassment and other wrongdoing, botching the exchange can have devastating consequences: legitimate complaints go unaddressed and bedlam on the sidelines ensues.

During the spring 2018 track season, four young sprinters from Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas set the No. 1 time in the nation in the 4x100 sprint relay. They won the Texas State Division 6A Track Meet (largest high schools in the state) with a time of 39.80, simultaneously claiming the 2018 national high school record. Their time is the second fastest time ever, on a national basis, for this event. A time in 1998 was only four one-hundredths of a second (.04) faster. No one dropped the baton at any meet all season long.

This group had never run together before the 2018 season and, in fact, did not all start out running this race at the beginning of the season. However, teams - of all kinds - can accomplish unexpected things if every team member takes his own role seriously, understands its importance, and works hard at getting it right.

So, what was the critical secret of the team’s success? I asked them. Coaches from other schools asked. Various members of the media asked. The answer repeatedly given was this: THE WELL-EXECUTED HAND-OFF.

How does this apply to you and me and the #MeToo movement? Consider this: you can have all the policies in the world, long and arduous training sessions, and, smart people everywhere you look, but what does that matter if Employee Evalyn or Employee Emil brings forward a complaint, yet that complaint goes nowhere? Someone drops the complaint in the rush of business; it rolls off to the side; the complainant, feeling dejected and/or pretty darn irritated, next looks to Lawyer Lou or their Always Helpful Friendly Government Agency for help, instead. Your unfinished relay is a missed opportunity for a successful ending.

Train anyone who might be the recipient of a harassment complaint – HR staff, team leads, supervisors of all levels – that if an employee presents a complaint that just might be complaint of unlawful harassment (really, any harassment), they must take action. The required action may be passing the information on to someone else in particular (e.g., to HR) or taking action to begin investigating.

As in track, teach everyone that he is not done with his part until he has promptly and fully handed off to the next person in the chain. Throwing wildly in the direction of the intended recipient is not sufficient. If the team member twists an ankle and stumbles or is somehow “delayed,” the goal is still to hand off as soon as possible. Likewise, the next team member in the chain needs to be ready to accept the baton and keep things moving – no dodging responsibility. If that person isn’t paying attention or doesn’t have her hand out when it should be in position, run harder and continue to try to land the baton. If you must, “yell” to capture that person’s attention.

Many people still live with the hope that a problem will magically vanish if ignored or hold the convenient conviction that any problem will be handled by someone else… anyone else. Ha! Take the time to drum in the philosophy that “every problem is your problem” until it truly has been delivered into the hands of the person who will run the next lap.

Another helpful aside: too often, a person in the relay will actually tell the complainant that he will not be passing on the complaint because the next person “does not like to hear stuff like this” or is “always irritable when this kind of thing comes up.” Good grief. What great evidence for both the underlying claim and the retaliation case potentially to follow!

Good hand-offs and never dropping the baton worked for these young men, and it will work for your team, too!

The general principles described above are not legal advice or other professional advice of any kind and are intended as guidelines only. Consult competent counsel or other professional support in dealing with any problematic issues.

© 2018 Elizabeth Pratt, PLLC


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