Bristol-Myers' Uniquely Awful Sexual Harassment Policy: Silence Is Consent

Last Updated Aug 10, 2010 12:40 PM EDT

Bristol-Myers Squibb's (BMY) lawyers apparently argued with straight faces in court that an employee who arranges a meeting between a woman complaining of on-the-job sexual harassment and her human resources manager is not opposing the harassment if he only listens during the meeting.
That's just one of the gems to be found in Collazo v. Bristol-Myers Squibb, a federal appeals court ruling that reinstates a retaliation claim against the company. Its alternative title might be: "How Not to Handle Sexual Harassment Complaints at Work."

In the case, BMS scientist Diana Hiraldo complained to her supervisor, Luis Collazo, that one of her colleagues was calling her frequently and leering at her while on the job. Collazo organized a meeting between her and BMS HR specialist Edgardo García, at which Hiraldo explained her problem and Garcia told her about the grievance process.

BMS then laid off Collazo in what it claimed was a "reorganization." The court noted that in that reorg, the only person laid off was Collazo and that BMS's own HR director had not seen any documents discussing the reorganization.

Collazo sued, claiming that his firing was retaliation for engaging in a protected activity -- protesting sexual harassment at work. The judges noted:

Bristol-Myers argues that Collazo did not "oppose" any discriminatory conduct because he "did not utter words" during the meetings with García but instead "simply listened to Hiraldo."
That's breathtaking. BMS is trying to justify firing someone for doing the right thing: introducing an employee to the very HR people who are supposed to prevent harassment in the workplace. By not opening his mouth he wasn't opposing the harassment, and therefore could not have been retaliated against by the company, BMS argued. (BMS ignored the fact that immediately after the meeting Collazo said to Garcia that this was a "serious case, a serious case where this girl alleges that she is being sexually harassed by this guy," the ruling states.)

HR executives might also want to note that, once again, it's not the harassment itself that generated the lawsuit liability, it was the retaliation against the employee who complained about it.

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Image by Flickr user bloomsberries, CC.