Untranslated Anti-Harassment Policy Not Effective

Company settled a $525K sexual harassment claim after failing to translate the policy for Spanish-speaking employees

Legal translation services play an important role in protecting the employers’ interests in employment litigation. A recent case out of the state of Washington highlights the importance of companies translating important policies and procedures for non-English speaking employees.

In State of Washington v. Horning Brothers, LLC., 339 F. Supp. 3d 1106 (E.D. Wash. 2018), the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment and held Horning Brothers, LLC strictly liable for a sexual harassment claim. The court found that the company failed to get the anti-sexual harassment policy translated for non-English speaking employees and failed to provide interpreters for victims during the complaint process.

Horning Brothers has now agreed to pay out $525,000 to the plaintiffs as damages.

Washington State Attorney General received complaints about Horning Brothers

The Washington State Attorney General sued Horning Brothers after it received multiple complaints from former female employees about sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring practices and retaliation during the complaint process.

Horning Brothers is a small onion-packing company that hires almost entirely Spanish-speaking seasonal employees. Traditionally the company only hired women to sort onions on the factory line, and not for other positions.

The Attorney General began investigating Horning Brothers after it received reports that former female employees were subject to severe and unwelcome sexual advances, in addition to other forms of workplace discrimination. The women accused male employees and managers of harassment. Specifically, the manager requested sex, made overt sexual gestures and groped female employees against their wills.

Horning Brothers claimed that they had a sexual harassment policy that was in effect at the time of these cases. They distributed the policy during safety meetings and new employee training sessions.

The anti-harassment policy was written in English and the written text was never translated into Spanish so that the Spanish-speaking employees could have a copy. Instead, bilingual employees interpreted it verbally and explained the policy to Spanish speaking employees. The materials were not translated word-for-word and the employees were not asked if they understood the English to Spanish translation afterward.

Many employees testified that they did not even remember discussing an anti-harassment policy at the trainings, and they didn’t know that there was such a policy at Horning Brothers. In fact, the court found that the supposed sexual harassment policy didn’t actually mention sexual harassment at all. It also didn’t explain the procedure for filing and adjudicating a complaint.

Several female employees decided to complain to a manager about the harassment, even though they weren’t aware of a specific policy. When they did, the women were informed that the policy required them to hire a Spanish interpreter to make the formal complaint. The manager did not speak Spanish and he could not understand the Spanish-speaking employees. Instead of hiring a Spanish translator to facilitate the complaint process, the company put the burden on the victim to hire an interpreter.

After learning about several sexual harassment complaints, the managers did not take any actions to remedy the sexual harassment. The company also retaliated against several women by firing them, failing to re-hire them the next season or otherwise punishing them.

The Washington State Attorney General then filed this lawsuit on behalf of the employees.

The sexual harassment policy was ineffective because it wasn’t interpreted for Spanish-speaking employees

Horning Brother’s argued that they followed an anti-sexual harassment policy that insulated them from liability. As a result, they asked the court to deny summary judgement. However, the court refused and concluded that the company was ineffective at communicating the policy, as well as explaining how to make a complaint and the process for adjudication.

First, the policy did not actually mention sexual harassment and did not explain how to file a complaint. Second, the policy was functionally ineffective because the Spanish-speaking employees could not understand it without an English to Spanish translation. The company did not take the appropriate actions to make sure that everyone understood what was prohibited.

Instead of hiring a certified and professional Spanish interpreter, the company used bilingual employees with no training to interpret the document to their peers. They relied on a verbal translation that summed up the information, rather than interpreting the entire policy word for word. After the training, there was no follow-up to make sure that the Spanish-speaking employees actually understood the policy.

In fact, many of the employees did not understand the policy and did not know that the policy existed, despite attending this training. Furthermore, when women did complain, they were required to bring their own Spanish interpreter to translate the complaint for the managers. This also made the policy ineffective because it functionally prevented and deterred women from making a complaint in the first place.

The court granted summary judgement for the plaintiff

Once Horning Brothers learned of the complaints, the company did not address them and instead retaliated against the women in a variety of ways. As a result of their ineffective anti-sexual harassment policy and the failure to enforce it, the court rejected the company’s argument that they were insulated because of the policy, and granted the motion for partial summary judgment.

The Defendant to pay $525,000 because of their errors

Since the court’s ruling, Horning Brothers has settled and agreed to pay $525,000 to the Spanish-speaking female employees that were subjected to sexual harassment. For a small company with only a handful of year-round employees, this settlement has huge implications.

It signifies the importance of accurately translating all company policies and procedures and other written materials into the languages of the non-English-speaking employees so that every employee can access the materials. It further highlights a company’s obligation to provide competent interpretation services during trainings.

Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to get your company policy translated to Spanish, Bosnian, Polish, Greek, Amharic, Oromo, Turkish, Tigrinya, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Romanian, Russian, and other foreign languages, and to hire an on-site legal interpreter to provide interpreting services during employee meetings and safety training events.

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