Ford Faces Sexual Harassment Charges — Again

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jun. 15, 2015

Photo by Rick Bell

Fifteen years after settling a $9 million sexual harassment lawsuit at a Chicago factory, Ford Motor Co. again faces similar allegations at the same facility.

The latest lawsuit filed in November 2014 by attorney Keith Hunt — one of the lawyers from the 2000 settlement — originally on behalf of four women but now 33 people alleges sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant as well as Ford’s Chicago Heights, Illinois, stamping facility.

An investigation into the allegations launched by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission led to the agency telling the automaker in February that it again found evidence of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

In a May 1 statement, Ford emphasized its zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and announced that it has conducted a thorough investigation in response to the allegations and has “taken appropriate steps in response, including disciplinary action where warranted.” Ford said it replaced eight managers, including human resources officials and the plant manager.

The group of women in the class-action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, allege that they were regularly subjected to lewd and demeaning remarks and inappropriate physical contact, including groping, fondling and requests for sexual favors.

Following the 2000 settlement, Ford spent an additional $10 million to train managers and male autoworkers to work alongside their female co-workers, after the EEOC found proof of harassment. The automaker also established a hotline to report discrimination, and put monitors in its Chicago plants to watch for abusive behavior.

“The allegations are so salacious it is hard to believe,” said Ed Harold, a partner at the Fisher & Phillips law firm in New Orleans. “It would be stunning if they turn out to be true.”

Besides “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment, Ford’s corporate anti-harassment policies state that it also prohibits retaliation against anyone for making a good-faith complaint. The women in the current lawsuit claim that they called the hotline but received no help from the corporate office and that they were later harassed for making the claims.

As a global corporation, Ford has been recognized for its efforts to support women and diversity in the workplace.

Such discrepancies between global policy and local corporate culture can be a considerable risk for companies, and this lawsuit should be a wake-up call for HR, said Cary Donham, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister. “In a diverse company like Ford, you need to make sure the HR people in local plants are trained on how to deal with sexual harassment issues, and that the organization follows through on any reports to be sure complaints are not ignored.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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