Pilot plant opportunity becomes one woman's Acme nightmare-- could a lawsuit have been avoided?

A pilot plant opportunity for a woman employee turns into a harassment nightmare. Lewd comments, non-private changing quarters and little management interference lead to a lawsuit. How could this situation been avoided?

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When Acme’s R&D lab develops something promising, the project moves to a pilot-scale skunk works operation on the plant floor for a feasibility test in the real world of dirt and grime. The pilot lab is staffed by regular employees who volunteer to be part of Acme’s “next big thing.” They spend their days manufacturing new products, fine tuning new technologies and improving existing processes. If the initiative works out, it graduates to more enduring arrangements in the plant. Similarly, a volunteer who works out gets in on the ground floor of a new revenue stream and gets a financial stake in the outcome. Those who don’t work out can go back to their regular jobs, but with seniority reset to zero.

Acme’s latest product initiative requires thermal processing of permanent dyes in its manufacture. The last thing Acme needs is dye stains throughout the plant and especially in the regular mezzanine locker rooms. To keep that dusty dye powder from wafting out to the rest of the facility, the plant engineering group walled off a section of the pilot lab and installed a dedicated ventilation system to hold the space under a slight vacuum. To prevent workers from trailing colorants behind them on the way to the cafeteria and at shift changes, the layout includes a break room for those working in the plant-within-a-plant.

The workers there use nonwoven, laminated coveralls to keep the dye away from their skin. You could always tell when someone made a mistake; they had deeply colored splotches on their hands, fingers, cheeks or chin for several weeks.

The skunk works operation produces its share of heat. In response to worker complaints, plant engineers added two changing rooms that flank the break room. Workers could now leave their street clothes in the changing rooms and wear only the coveralls in the warm processing environment. One wall of each changing room is outfitted with racks of open-mesh wire baskets to hold street clothing. These are secured with the workers’ personal padlocks.

The day Acme announced a new project in a flyer handed out to employees at the beginning of each shift, Louise Yanna was one of the first to volunteer her services. The situation was ideal for her. A relatively new employee who regretted missing out on the dot com bubble, she is young, has little seniority at risk and can see great personal financial potential in a positive outcome. Besides the base pecuniary motives, Louise truly believed in the new product that was the current center of attention. Even if things don’t work out, she has plenty of career remaining in which to recover.

So, Louise suited up every day and did her dead-level best to make her part of the project a success. After her first week in the skunk works, though, she noticed that some of her coworkers regularly made comments about her looks whenever she walksed through the area. She considered the comments offensive and suggestive, but never did anything about the situation.

When she casually mentioned this to Anne Jupare, one of the other women working in the area, Louise learned that she wasn’t the only target. Anne told her she’s lucky. Some of the other women also had complained of inappropriate touching.

This news infuriated Louise, who, on behalf of the other women working in the area, complained to Marty Grah, the project manager. He walked into the area immediately and talked to the people she accused. This put a stop to the boorish behavior, but for only a few months. Personnel turnover in the skunk works, always a problem for Acme’s new projects, brought in a new cast of characters and the comments began anew.

Again Louise complained to Marty and, as before, the comments stopped quickly, but only for a few days. When they started again, they were being delivered in Spanish. She didn’t need to be fluent in the language. She knew the men were still making what she considered to be lewd comments. Each time one said something with a big grin, the others would snicker and stare at her before returning to their work.

One day, following her normal routine, Louise went into the women’s changing room to swap her street clothes for coveralls. She heard a loud noise coming from the adjacent break room. It sounded as if one of the tables was being slid across the floor. Shortly thereafter, she heard some muffled chuckling from at least two people. As she removed more of her street clothing, the volume of laughter increased. That’s when she noticed the hole in the wall separating the changing room from the break room.

She complained again and management responded by repairing the hole. Several months later, Louise noticed that there was another hole in the wall, but in a different, less obvious location.

She registered another complaint with Marty. This time, however, one of the executives from Mahogany Row actually walked down to the skunk works area, donned a set of coveralls and inspected the situation firsthand. Within a week, the maintenance department had installed heavy paneling on both sides of the walls separating the changing rooms from the break room.

But that action made no difference to Louise, who already decided that henceforth she would change into her coveralls in the regular locker rooms. It was inconvenient, but the option offered her a bit more privacy. Not surprisingly, the other females in the area followed suit.

Within a week, Marty was getting complaints about “his dyes” being all over the women’s locker room. When he confronted her and insisted that she again use the skunk works changing room, it dawned on Louise that there is probably even greater personal financial potential in a sexual harassment suit. Besides, she still has plenty of career remaining in which to get over this Acme emotional trauma fiasco.

How could this situation have been avoided? Will Louise’s suit result in any unforeseen downside consequences in her future? Did management provide an appropriate response to her complaints?

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