Media giant Yahoo is facing a lawsuit alleging that one of its female senior executives coerced a female subordinate software engineer into sex by threating her job and stock options. The employee says she reported the sexual harassment to human resources, but that no action was taken against the executive. After being fired, she hired an attorney and filed suit and now, in what many are considering a risky move, Yahoo’s attorneys have backed the senior executive in a countersuit against the former employee. The countersuit claims defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
This is an unusual tactic and many are wondering why Yahoo has taken what some consider to be a dangerous chance rather than downplaying the sexual harassment incident or settling. There are three possible reasons.
The first is the simplest and most straightforward. If the senior executive is innocent of the sexual harassment accusations, and there is no evidence proving otherwise, Yahoo is standing behind a trusted and valued employee who they believe is not guilty. But the other two possibilities are not so charitable. Yahoo’s attorneys may be taking an offensive position in an attempt to head off negative publicity, or they may be trying to intimidate the plaintiff into dropping her sexual harassment claim.
Yahoo is making the argument that the employee completely fabricated the entire sexual harassment story for her own ends, and that this is the culmination of a plan to shake down the company for millions. Unfortunately, this type of aggression in a sexual harassment lawsuit can be a gamble, as there attorneys may end up looking like a bully in the public eye.
Some experts are wondering if this is the beginning of a trend. Big companies’ attorneys may start fighting sexual harassment cases rather than just automatically trying to sweep them under the rug. Recent examples of high-level executives fighting and winning against claims may be inspiring other organizations to be more supportive of those accused of misconduct.