Legislators Consider Law that would Grant Broad Sexual Harassment Powers to Massachusetts Attorney General

If there isn’t already enough for employers to worry about amid the plethora of sexual deviance reports that have hit the media lately, add to the list the prospect of an amended anti-discrimination statute that would give the Massachusetts Attorney General broad investigative powers over all things harassing or discriminatory. If passed, the proposed new law would drastically change the sexual harassment landscape by inserting the power of government into the discrimination law arena in a dramatic new way.

In late January, a bill captioned “An Act to enhance investigations of sexual harassment and discrimination” was introduced by State Senator Cynthia Creem. It proposes to amend Mass. Gen. L. ch. 151B, which already provides remedies against sexual harassment and other discriminatory misconduct, by empowering the Massachusetts Attorney General to investigate those same claims when it sees fit. Tools at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s disposal will include the power to demand production of documents and witnesses for sworn testimony. The office of the Massachusetts Attorney General can use its investigative findings to negotiate resolutions with employers or file suit for injunctive relieve, civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation of law, and damages that include lost wages, emotional distress, and reimbursement for investigative expenses and legal fees. As an apparent public relations deterrent to sexual harassment, the proposed bill would make findings of potential discrimination made by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination open to public inspection, an event that no employer will want to experience.

Regardless whether the proposal becomes law (it is now being reviewed by a legislative committee), it represents yet another warning about sexual behaviors that employers cannot afford to ignore. Massachusetts anti-discriminations laws already make sexual harassment illegal and require employers to maintain an effective anti-harassment policy that is distributed at least annually to all employees. It also encourages sexual harassment training of employees, especially managers. Given the huge financial stakes in this area, the prevalence of sexually inappropriate behaviors in Massachusetts workplaces, and the encouragement victims are currently receiving to complain about harassment when it occurs, all employers will be well-served by a thorough evaluation of their workplaces and procedures. In many cases, a training program for managers or others will make risk/reward sense.

Vigilance on Sexual Behaviors is an Essential Tool for Employers

If there’s one thing we’re learning as claims of sexual impropriety continue to grab headlines in workplaces across the country, it’s that employers often don’t effectively address sexual harassment issues until it’s too late. There’s never been much doubt that mistakes in this arena can cost a lot of money. Enter the needs for effective policies surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace and thorough training of managers. How, after all, can employers prevent damaging sexual harassment allegations if their key employees don’t know the signs of trouble and how to deal with them?

One of the big causes of sexual harassment problems in the workplace is a failure to understand that victims of sexual harassment often don’t want to complain and, when they do, frequently give only limited information. There are a variety of reasons for this ranging from fear of retaliation to a hope that bad behaviors will end on their own to a desire to get along with co-workers. When employers don’t realize this, they tend to overlook issues that might be portrayed as less significant than they really are and miss opportunities to resolve sexual harassment before it becomes a costly lawsuit. To avoid that error, employers need to institute zero tolerance policies for sexual behaviors at work and, when even a hint of it comes to their attention, investigate quickly. You never know what you might find.

In fact, workplace investigations of sexual harassment often uncover behaviors that were not explicitly raised by an initial complaint. On appropriate questioning, employees normally expand on how they feel and what they experienced. An investigation might reveal that behaviors are long-standing and practiced by a broader number of employees who are not aware of the dangers that sexual talk or acts present to their employers, even when those behaviors are ‘consensual’ or ‘don’t bother’ other employees. In many cases, sexual joking, e.g., is common at work, yet almost all employees are hesitant to complain to employers even when they are bothered by it. Almost all also have breaking points.

Employers are thus well advised to be sure they understand what goes on in their workplaces. All should review and ensure their sexual harassment policies are strong; make sure all employees get copies of the policy at least once a year; post notices regarding sexual harassment and its remedies; and train all managers, at least, about the basics of sexual harassment and how to spot its signs before things get out of control. Doing all this is not only prudent, it’s almost essential in light of recent sexual harassment stories and their impacts on victims’ understanding both that they are not alone and that protection is available for those who feel compelled to complain.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Recent Headlines about Sexual Harassment at Work is a Call to Action for Massachusetts Employers

image credit: pixabay

image credit: pixabay

The recent accusations of sexual harassment by powerful men against the women – and sometimes men – who work around them is suddenly shining a bright light on the issue. Shocking as some of the claims may be, the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem in Massachusetts is no surprise. For employers, the central message from media reports about Harvey Weinstein and others is patent. Pay attention to what’s going in your board rooms, mail rooms, and everywhere in between lest you face the embarrassment and expense that sexual harassment claims deliver.

Indeed, there is no shortage of sexual harassment claims in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth has long made employers responsible for rooting out sexual behaviors at work and addressing them before they become sexual harassment. All employers of six or more must have a sexual harassment in the workplace policy that is distributed annually to their employees. The model policy includes a discussion of sexual behaviors, encouragement of internal complaints, a promise to investigate, and contact information for filing state and federal complaints. Massachusetts employers are automatically on the financial hook for sexual harassment perpetrated by managers and for behaviors by others if they don’t quickly and reasonably address them. Needless to say, the cost of even a single sexual harassment claim can be extreme. In addition to paying their own lawyers, employers face the prospect of large damages awards and orders they pay the legal fees of the employees who sue them for sexual harassment

There are several steps employers should take to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace issues. The first step is to set a workplace tone that does not tolerate sexual or other inappropriate behaviors. Employers can do this through strong policies, delivered through comprehensive employment manuals that managers can get behind in visible ways. Policies should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to assure compliance with new laws. Managers, at least, should be trained about sexual harassment in the workplace and instructed that setting a positive example and addressing inappropriate behaviors when they occur is a critical part of their jobs. Staff should be encouraged to bring issues of concern to management’s attention, and those concerns must be addressed promptly.