In the Trenches: Acme learns a thing or two about anti-harassment policies

Based on a true story, fictional plant Acme learns that it better adhere to every detail of its anti-harassment policies. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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Acme got its start 15 years ago as a third-tier supplier to the automotive industry. Recognizing that car parts had become mere commodities and customer loyalty was only as deep as the discounts Acme had to offer to keep the business, management realized that it had to diversify its market offerings if it was to remain viable. During the past seven years, Acme has become somewhat of a local conglomerate as it either controlled or purchased outright half a dozen smaller manufacturing plants in the tri-county area. With these acquisitions, Acme gained access to several non-auto markets as well as some interesting employees.

Acme’s three-building headquarters complex is where the company still produces a dwindling variety of widgets for domestic autos. That’s also where Hanyak Chinovniki, an émigré from eastern Europe, works in his tiny office near the docks. With a name like that, everyone at Acme took to calling him Han.
Short of stature, physically weak with a squeaky voice and nerdy-looking behind his granny glasses, Han is not your stereotypical idea of a Russian. Mousy Han is afraid of conflict, especially with the far more muscular, but less intellectually endowed, Acme workers.

Rumor has it that Han worked his way up the ranks in a government ministry in the former Soviet Union. He may have a heavy Russian accent that makes it difficult to communicate with him, but his mathematical prowess and attention to the minutiae of his job are flawless. Perhaps some of what he does is useless busy work. Nobody really understands his system.

He spends much of the day meticulously maintaining his mountains of paperwork and recording every detail concerning every incoming delivery of raw material and repair parts as well as outgoing shipments of finished goods. Without exception, if a truck enters the Acme yard, its driver won’t be able to escape Han running across the dock to collect his details. This level of attention even includes Acme’s own trucks coming in from the various Acme plant locations. Truly, the yard and docks are Han’s ministry portfolio and he hoards the data that, based on the number of inquiries he gets, many people seem to value.

But not everyone appreciates Han’s approach to business. At least one group of good ol’ boys at an Acme plant across town have been giving Han a hard time when they come to the headquarters campus. They pretend they can’t understand his English. Or they speak idiomatically and rely on regional slang to make it impossible for Han to realize they’re making fun of him. Periodically, they’ve played pranks on him and once set a little booby trap that caused books to fall off his shelf when he opened his office door.

Han, like every employee, signed Acme’s anti-harassment policy form the day he was hired. But being the consummate bureaucrat, he actually read every word of the underlying 16-page policy itself and knew every nuance the document contained. In spite of that, fear and implied threats made him think that it really might be much more prudent to remain silent about these events that have been going on for the past three months.

Even so, the office grapevine had one tentacle in the office of Warren Pease, Han’s supervisor. As soon as Warren heard the rumors about Han, he stopped what he was doing and went to investigate the matter. He walked down to Han’s office to get a first-hand account of what was supposed to have happened.

Han initially denied that anything happened. Patiently, Warren kept at it because he needed to confirm or deny the stories. After asking Han at least twice whether he experienced any problems, Han finally opened up.

Han then told Warren of the ethnic epithets. The mechanics had been calling him a dirty commie rat. Someone sent him a photo of a hammer and sickle through interoffice mail. Finally, Han said that he was “goosed” with a broom handle. Under further grilling, Han revealed the names of the two workers involved.

Warren left immediately and walked to the office building to speak with Jim Naziome, the mechanics’ supervisor. Instead of eating lunch that day, Jim drove to the other Acme plant to confront the two mechanics. In separate interviews, each denied Han’s allegations. Nevertheless, Jim warned them that such behavior is unacceptable and that they would be fired if Han’s complaints could be proven.

When he returned to headquarters, Jim went directly to Warren’s office to report on his conversation with the two mechanics. Near the end of the shift, Warren returned to Han’s office to pass on Jim’s report and to tell Han that he should henceforth avoid the two mechanics when they were on headquarters property. In fact, Warren told him to start taking his breaks and eating his lunch in the office facilities instead of using the plant lunchroom and break room.

After a thoughtful, slow head shaking, Han argued that this wasn’t a workable solution. Whether the mechanics are on-site or not, there are still trucks and deliveries that need to be tracked and recorded. Besides, he asked, how would he know that they’re around? The office building lunchroom was far enough away from Han’s office that he wouldn’t have but about 10 minutes to wolf down his lunch. Warren told Han to deal with it -- just avoid the mechanics and keep his head down. Warren then left Han’s office and headed to the parking lot.

Han’s subsequent discrimination claim argued that this is an unacceptable solution. None of the proposed resolution follows Acme’s anti-harassment policy. There weren’t any notes made, the incidents aren’t documented anywhere, and none of the events have ever been reported to upper management. Therefore, Han argued, Acme is liable under the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

How could this situation have been avoided? What elements would constitute an objectively adequate solution? How should a company respond to a seemingly ungrateful employee? Did Warren and Jim act responsibly or did they make key mistakes? What possible remedies or consequences are available to Han and Acme? What should be the fate of the mechanics?

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