Did Israel Just Take an Unprecedented Step in Fight Against Sexual Harassment at Work?

Employees accused of sexual harassment must be investigated, Labor Court rules, but companies must also compensate worker fired due to unsubstantiated rumors.

Illustration: Sexual harassment
Eran Wolkowski

An employee rumored to be a sexual harasser is entitled to compensation from his company for damage to his reputation if the company made no effort to either prove or disprove the allegation, a labor court has ruled in an unprecedented decision.

Until now, companies have only been required to investigate formal complaints of harassment, not mere rumors.

The employee worked for about 18 months at a firm that imports and leases heavy industrial vehicles before being fired. The company said it dismissed him because he was socially maladapted, didn’t fit the organizational culture and had disciplinary problems.

But when the man applied to another company, he discovered that he was also rumored to have sexually harassed women at his old job. The second company rescinded its job offer due to those rumors, and the man then sued his original employer for 200,000 shekels ($54,000) in the Tel Aviv Labor Court.

Judge Dori Spivak agreed with the plaintiff that his employer should have investigated the rumors of sexual harassment. “The obligation imposed on every manager to inform the sexual harassment compliance officer of any information he hears – whether it’s a complaint or information not backed by a complaint – is intended to protect not just the women or men who might have been victims of harassment, but also the men whose reputation was damaged by rumors of their being sexual harassers,” he wrote.

The fact that no formal complaint was ever filed does not absolve the company of its obligation to investigate, the judge stressed, because “a manager should not and need not exercise discretion in such a case as to whether the information in question is solid or not.” Thus as soon as the manager heard the rumors, he should have passed the information on to the sexual harassment compliance officer.

Nevertheless, Spivak rejected the employee’s claim that he was dismissed illegally. Therefore, he awarded him only 25,000 shekels in compensation plus 7,500 shekels in court costs.

The judge also stressed that he found no indication that any of the company officials who testified in the case had been responsible for spreading the rumor to other potential employers. On the contrary, he said, the company’s vice president, in particular, seems to have tried hard to refute the rumors and help the plaintiff in other ways to find a new job.