Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hiring: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Yesterday we wrote about the problems that have and can arise when employees date their co-workers. Today we’re reporting on a case where an employee went beyond dating and used his position to obtain sexual favors from prospective employees.  All employers should take notice of a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that reminds us that what we don’t know about who we are hiring can be bad.
In the case of Wilson v. Cook County, 742 F.3d 775 (7th Cir. 2014), Oak Forest Hospital learned how problematic it is to hire an employee without doing any background checks.  Unfortunately in this instance for Oak Forest Hospital, an employee was assigned to work there by the County which funds and operates the hospital.   The employee, Phil Vanaria, a long time County employee, was placed at the Hospital as a coordinator of continuing education programs for physicians and staff.

What the hospital did not know in this case was that Vanaria had been fired from a job at the Cook County Adult Probation Department for giving female probationers more favorable terms of probation if they were willing to provide him with sexual favors.  While he was working at the hospital, a female employee of Eli Lilly & Co. complained about Vanaria conditioning her participation in continuing education programs on giving him a massage.  The hospital investigated the complaint and told Vanaria to stay away from the Eli Lilly representative.  It still did not know about the Cook County Adult Probation incident.  Then things got worse.

Vanaria met a woman who was a massage therapist through a mutual acquaintance.  He offered her a job as a physical therapist.  She was not qualified to work as a physical therapist as she lacked the requisite degree and certification.  Even had she been qualified, there was no physical therapist position available and Vanaria did not have any authority to hire, interview etc.  Vanaria conditioned the woman’s  employment on sexual favors.  She apparently thought that this was not unusual in the beginning but became suspicious when Vanaria had a female friend who was impersonating a hospital human resources employee call to offer her a $10,000 raise (before she ever started working) provided that she agreed to perform more sexual favors for Vanaria.  The woman became suspicious and called the police.  Vanaria was arrested and ultimately pled guilty to official misconduct and bribery.

In this case, the hospital was fortunate.  The court granted summary judgment in its favor because, in part, of the fact that the plaintiff made the conscious decision to trade sexual favors for a position that she knew she was not qualified for.  Again, the hospital was fortunate because this was clearly a rogue employee and the Hospital was unaware of his “recruiting” activities.   Had the facts been different, the outcome could have been very bad for the hospital.

For employers, the lessons are clear.  Know who you are hiring.  Even if an employee is more or less thrust upon an organization, it is still important to get relevant background information on that individual. Had the Hospital done this, it would have been alerted to his past problems and could have taken steps to prevent his actions. Finally, supervise your employees well.  Good supervision is knowing if an employee who lacks hiring authority is conducting job interviews that end with sex acts in his office. The labor and employment attorneys at Ancel Glink can help employers establish guidelines and training to help ensure that your hiring practices are lawful and to keep your workplace free from sexual harassment.