A federal agency is suing Walmart (NYSE:WMT) for allegedly ignoring a case of sexual harassment for years and then firing the victim, an employee with developmental disabilities. The lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is unusual because there's no widespread pattern of behavior involved—it's one harasser and one target at a single Walmart store.
According to an EEOC news release: "Jamie Wells, who is developmentally disabled, worked at the company as an associate in the Akron store's lawn and garden department for more than 11 years. From about April 2005 through Jan. 7, 2011, the store allowed a male coworker to sexually harass Wells, including sexual touching Wells while on the store's premises. Further, although store management officials were aware of the harassment, they failed to take prompt or effective action to remedy the sexually hostile work environment. Instead, the store fired Wells three weeks after she complained about the abusive conduct."
The EEOC added that it tried to settle the problem with Walmart before going to court.
Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove responded in a statement that the chain "does not tolerate any type of harassment or discrimination in the workplace. When we learned of Ms. Wells' claims against her co-worker, we investigated and took decisive action to terminate the man whom she was accusing. As part of our investigation, witness accounts led us to discover that Ms. Wells also engaged in inappropriate conduct, which led to her dismissal."
That battle of news releases will all be converted to legal briefs soon enough. But the fact that an entire chain is being taken to task for what appears to be failed management at a single store should be a warning flag for retailers of all sizes. Virtually all retail chains have policies in place that forbid sexual harassment, hostile work environments and disability discrimination—and most can count on store management to enforce those policies. But if that trust turns out to be misplaced, even a single long-term problem may be enough for the EEOC to make a federal case of it.
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