A recent case reminds us to take all claims of sexual harassment seriously, including when the two employees are of the same sex. In Cherry v. Shaw Coastal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently found an employer liable for failing to respond following allegations that a male supervisor was sexually harassing a male employee.

The supervisor sent the employee sexually explicit text messages, touched him repeatedly (“in the way I touch my wife,” according to one witness), touched his buttocks, and repeatedly made sexual comments to him and about him. The employee and a different supervisor repeatedly complained up the ladder, but management was dismissive. At first, management viewed the conduct as merely “horsing around” and failed to refer the claims to human resources, in spite of a company policy requiring them to do so. When HR finally did get involved, they concluded that the allegations were all “he-said-he-said,” despite other witnesses who could have corroborated the employee’s claims.

The employee eventually resigned because of the harassment and filed suit against the supervisor and the company for sexual harassment. A jury found for the employee on all the claims and awarded him $500,000. The trial court initially overturned the verdict, but the Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court and reinstated the jury’s verdict and the damages award. The court first determined that the supervisor’s actions were sexual in nature, rather than merely humiliating, and that the actions were severe enough to warrant the verdict. Finally, and most important for management, the court determined that the employer’s response was inadequate. “An employer can escape liability if it takes remedial action calculated to end co-worker harassment as soon as it knows or should know of the harassment”; however, the employer’s failure to respond to the employee’s accusations ruined its chance to take advantage of this opportunity.

If a female employee complained about a male supervisor inappropriately touching her and sending her lewd and obscene messages, most employers would respond promptly and thoroughly. But some employers may not be as quick to address the same claim from a male employee. This case provides a strong reminder that employers must foster a culture where all sexual harassment claims are treated with the utmost seriousness. Failure to do so could be costly.