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Question 116: Is it fair to fire a sexually harassed woman for vengeful industrial sabotage?

I recently was hired as Director of Human Resources at a large assembly plant, and I find myself facing a problem unlike any I had to deal with in my former job. The plant has had an extraordinary number of returns under warranty of a particular item. Engineering found the same defect in nearly every case. The defect, which causes the unit to overheat under certain conditions, results from a mistake on the assembly line that can be made easily but is impossible for inspection to detect. Everyone who works on that line is taught to be careful to avoid this mistake.

We identified one line worker, Denise, as responsible. Until this misbehavior, she had been an excellent employee since she was hired last year. I called her in, told her we knew she had been making this mistake regularly, and asked her if she could explain why. She broke down and admitted she was doing it on purpose, not realizing we could identify her. She said the line foreman was sexually harassing her, and she was making the mistake to get him in trouble, hoping he would be fired.

At first, I doubted her story. That foreman, though new here, worked for the company at another plant for twelve years and had a clean record. But I talked at once with each of the other women working on the line with Denise, and all of them told me the same thing. While the foreman had never bothered them, on many occasions they had seen him putting his hands into Denise’s smock and had seen her pushing him away. Several times she had shouted at him and spat in his face. Once she managed to give him a knee in the groin, but within a few days he was bothering her again.

I called him in and handed him signed statements of every woman working on his line. His excuse was his wife had separated from him; Denise at first was “friendly”; he became crazy about her and could not keep his hands off her; he felt sure she would “come around.” I fired him, pointing out that his behavior violated company policy, which forbids a foreman to touch a worker unless necessary in doing the job. (That rule was made years ago, and was meant to prohibit foremen from physically disciplining workers; to the best of my knowledge, it never has been applied to sexual harassment, but surely is broad enough to cover it.)

I have talked again with Denise and asked her why she did not complain to the shift supervisor or come to Human Resources with her problem—which is what all workers are told to do whenever they feel a foreman is mistreating them in any way. She could not explain, except to say she hated the foreman and wanted to get him fired. When I pointed out that what she had done had already inconvenienced and irritated hundreds of our customers and cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, she said she had not thought about that and was sorry.

There was a time when I would have fired Denise as quickly as I fired the foreman and also would have reported what she had done to the police. Being more aware of the seriousness of sexual harassment, though, I have decided, with the approval of the company’s president, not to treat this as a crime. I wonder whether it even would be fair to fire Denise or whether we should give her a second chance.


This question calls for the derivation and application of norms for the ques~tioner’s treatment of employees who misbehave. Though provoked by a grave wrong, Denise’s behavior was not justified. She acted from hatred, without regard to the interests of her employer and the company’s customers. However, the company probably shares some responsibility for what happened, and there are strong reasons for retaining Denise and trying to help her become a better person and a better worker. On the same basis, the foreman, too, should perhaps be offered a second chance and similar help. In general, insofar as employees’ moral character affects the company’s common good, the questioner, in managing personnel, should undertake the responsibilities of a moral teacher and guide.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You certainly have reasons to fire Denise. Apparently, her intention was not merely to put an end to the foreman’s harassment. She could have tried to do that by using the means of redress the company provides and instructs employees to use. Rather, moved by anger and hatred, she deliberately sabotaged her work to get the foreman fired—not for his wrongdoing that deserved punishment but for something that was not his fault—while entirely ignoring her responsibilities to the company and its customers, whose right to good products does not depend on employees’ working conditions of which they know nothing. To excuse her misbehavior because the foreman’s wrongdoing provoked it would be unreasonable; to give her another chance merely because she is a woman would be to discriminate unjustly in her favor.

Still, there is a strong case against firing Denise. To her, the foreman represented the company that had placed him over her, and she may well have doubted that her grievance would be sympathetically received and fairly handled. Management’s policies and past behavior plainly did not lead the other women to urge her to complain and/or to complain on her behalf. Despite the ongoing harassment and her vigorous response, the shift supervisor was oblivious to the foreman’s misbehavior or tolerated it; in either case, he hardly seems to have been exercising appropriate oversight. These considerations strongly suggest that until now the company has failed to develop policies and procedures appropriate to discourage sexual harassment and detect it when it occurs. So, the company itself probably shares responsibility for what provoked Denise. Moreover, prior to the harassment, she had been an excellent employee, and the motive for her wrongdoing is now removed. Therefore, it seems you should not fire her and should proceed more vigorously to forestall and deal with harassment.325

I also think you should do more for Denise than merely give her a second chance. For the company’s sake and hers, counsel her so that she understands very clearly not only that what she did was gravely wrong and why, but also why anger and hatred can never justify trying to hurt someone (see CMP, 215–16). Confront her with some actual cases of the trouble and inconvenience she caused customers, and try to get her to put herself in their place. To get her to grasp the seriousness of what she did, you might point out that, had the company reported it to the police, she might well be in prison. In short, do your best to encourage her to repent her wrongdoing and firmly commit herself never to repeat it.

Unless you judge that the company’s responsibility for the situation or something else rules out requiring Denise to make restitution, you should seek it. For example, you might, if possible, ask her to forgo a portion of each pay, but allow her to earn that portion by working overtime so as not to impose too great a burden on her. Perhaps the overtime work could take the form of helping you teach other employees about sexual harassment and how to deal with it. Moreover, you not only should work with Denise and other employees to develop better policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment but should make it clear to all employees that while in the workplace they must resist temptations to act on their sexual impulses and try to avoid provoking others’ lust (see q. 165, below).

Perhaps, too, you should offer the foreman a second chance—assuming a job is available that will not bring him into contact with Denise but will be appropriate for him in other respects. He had a good record for twelve years. Since he did not harass the other women on the line, his mistreatment of Denise probably was occasioned by something special about her or about their relationship. Separation from his wife by no means justified his romantic interest in Denise, much less his lustful behavior, but his marital troubles do help explain the infatuation that occasioned his wrongdoing. Moreover, unless he has obtained a comparable or better job elsewhere, his firing probably has severely harmed not only him but his wife and children, if any. Finally, if he can be rehabilitated, that might well be in the company’s own best interests.

Therefore, you might contact the foreman and offer to reconsider his dismissal. If he wishes to be rehired, begin by explaining to him very clearly why what he did was gravely wrong. Point out to him that he seems to share a widespread view of erotic desire as a primal urge that cannot be denied, and explain that, though many in our society—for example, proponents of so-called safe sex—take this view for granted, it is false. People who really cannot control themselves need to be locked away for the protection of others, but normal adults can choose to restrain themselves. His marital difficulties call for continence, not adulterous behavior. Confront him, too, with actual cases of the unforeseen harm that resulted from provoking Denise’s retaliation. Again, you should try to elicit sincere repentance and encourage a firm commitment to behave properly in the future.

If the foreman seems repentant and determined to reform, you could rehire him on a probationary basis. If you do, require him to make appropriate restitution both to Denise and to the company for the losses it incurred due to his wrongdoing. His superiors should be told to keep an eye on him, and he should be told they will. Point out to him that his behavior toward Denise violated the law, and warn him that you not only will report any repetition to the police but will encourage the victim to cooperate with the public prosecutor.

In sum, I advise you to assume, as it were, a pastoral role toward both these people, and to act as their moral teacher and guide. Some will object that this would be presumptuous paternalism on your part. However, to do good work and cooperate well with others, employees must think prudently about what they do in the workplace. Therefore, personnel management—an expression preferable to human resources, which suggests that employees are nothing more than assets to be used—rightly includes relevant moral formation, while respecting employ~ees’ privacy in regard to aspects of their lives and character not manifested in the workplace. Dealing with employees fairly, you can strive to overcome the evils inevitable in their working relationships and so build up a more genuine community with and among them. I believe that approach will not only be good business but an appropriate way of fulfilling your responsibility as a lay apostle to penetrate and transform the workplace with the light of the gospel and the healing touch of Jesus (see AA 5–8).

325. A helpful summary of relevant law with practical guidance for dealing with the problem: William Petrocelli and Barbara Kate Repa, Sexual Harassment on the Job, 2nd ed. (Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 1995).