How would you like to come to work every day, knowing that your co-workers--and customers--had likely seen photos of you naked, and that there was nothing you could do to stop them seeing more?
That was the situation facing an unnamed United Airlines flight attendant--for years--according to a lawsuit that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed against the airline on Friday in federal court. According to the suit, the flight attendant (referred to only as Jane Doe) conducted a consensual sexual relationship with a United pilot named Mark Uhlenbrock. During the relationship, which lasted from 2002 to 2006, she allowed him to take pictures of her both naked and partially dressed and in provocative poses, believing the images would never be seen by anyone but the two of them. But Uhlenbrock began posting these images online without her knowledge. When she did find out, she ended their relationship.
That was only the beginning of her troubles. According to the lawsuit, Uhlenbrock went right on posting the photos to "various websites" (presumably social media sites) for years and years. One of his posts urged passengers, "Look for her when you fly!" Another said she was "a new reason to 'Fly the Friendly Skies.'" Some of his posts identified her by name, explained that she was a United Airlines flight attendant, and--just to make sure she would be easy to find--named her home airport.
This went on for a long time. Make that a very long time. Although the lawsuit doesn't specify how many years it was, it's worth noting that the FBI conducted an investigation that led to Uhlenbrock's arrest in 2016--ten years after the flight attendant broke up with him. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison, which he's currently serving. The flight attendant sued Uhlenbrock three times, and he agreed to pay her $100,000.
If this isn't harassment, what is?
And what did United do year after year while one employee was showing the world naked pictures of another employee? Absolutely nothing. It's not that the airline didn't know about the naked pictures and the posts. The flight attendant complained to the airline and asked her employer to make the harassment stop again and again over several years. According to the suit, she showed United the posts with the pictures of her, including one in which she is partially dressed in her flight attendant uniform, in the hope that the airline would care about how its uniform was portrayed, even if it didn't care about her. She even tracked down IP addresses and time records that showed Uhlenbrock was posting the pictures on company time. Even so, far from disciplining him, the airline let him retire with full benefits.
It boggles the mind, but according to the lawsuit, none of Uhlenbrock's behavior constituted sexual harassment in the workplace, United executives told the flight attendant. According to the EEOC, "harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment." At least two of the flight attendant's co-workers admitted to having seen the photos of her that Uhlenbrock posted. If showing naked pictures of a co-worker to her colleagues, not to mention anyone else in the world with a social media account, doesn't count as creating a "hostile work environment" I'm not sure what does.
United says it has a different account of the situation, although the airline is so far declining to say what that account is. Presumably, its lawyers are waiting for their day in court. In statements sent to several news outlets, a company representative said that "United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace," which of course is what every company in America says about sexual harassment. The representative went on to say that the company would "vigorously" defend itself against the suit. The airline has not commented as to whether posting naked pictures of a co-worker along with her name and home airport amounts to harassment in its view or not.
We all know that United is really good at making itself look really bad, though the airline seems to have outdone itself this time. But there's a lesson here for every company and every manager. When someone tells you that one of your employees is committing sexual harassment, you have several options. Doing nothing isn't one of them.