Taking Action to Eliminate Sexual Behaviors at Work is Crucial for Avoiding Sexual Harassment Lawsuits

For those who have yet to grasp the significance of the #MeToo movement, which is encouraging women to complain about sexual mistreatment at work, here’s a bit more help. In late 2017, a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 54% of women believe they received “unwanted and inappropriate” sexual advances at work, and 95% of them think such behavior normally is not punished by employers. About 80% of these women called the conduct sexual harassment. That means, according to the poll, about 33 million women think they were sexually harassed at work.

That, of course, is a lot of potential litigation, and there’s little doubt it’s being unleashed on employers who fail to take steps to address it. Fortunately, doing so effectively isn’t particularly complex, though it does require a firm commitment. Employers should begin by implementing or re-issuing, as the case may be, strong anti-sexual harassment policies, then follow them up with a concrete and sustained message that no sex talk or behavior will be tolerated at work or at work events. Here are a pointers for employers in this areas. Their goal should be to encourage employees to complain about perceived sexual issues so that employer’s action can follow and risks are thus minimized.

  1. Decide that an anti-harassment program is worthwhile and commit to it at the highest managerial levels. If top leaders don’t buy in and mean it, what follows will likely be a waste of time.
  2. Evaluate workplace interactions to see how employees talk with each other and behave on the job. A good baseline understanding here is important so that potential threats are exposed and employees can be asked to make specifically required changes.
  3. Be sure appropriate anti-harassment postings exist. Update or re-post them as needed.
  4. Train key personnel and consider training others. At the very least, be sure all employees get an in-person overview of the company’s anti-harassment policy and have the chance to ask questions. Key managers should be present when this is done to deliver the message that the company means what it says.
  5. Designate and train a key human resources person to answer questions and address complaints. Strange though it may seem, complaints about sexual behaviors are an employer’s friend, not its enemy. When workers believe the company will take them seriously and act, sexual harassment is normally dealt with internally. When they don’t, victims tend to remain silent and consider filing suit at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Steps for Dealing with Improper Sexual Behaviors in the Workplace

Dealing with improper sexual behaviors at work is something no one should have to worry about. All too often, however, employees and employers are forced to do so. In some cases, bad actors are managers or even company owners – a situation that makes an effective response to workplace sexual behavior difficult for all concerned. In others, sexually harassing or otherwise improper sexual behaviors in the workplace comes, but victims don’t complain because they are not confident that their concerns will be dealt with properly. In either of these situations, things can go from bad to worse for employee and employer alike in a very short period of time.

As the #metoo movement takes hold, it’s clear that the status quo in the sexual harassment in the workplace arena can no longer be tolerated. Employees are feeling empowered to complain when events occur, and employers must take action. Those who don’t, risk potentially serious financial and other business-related peril. To avoid those pitfalls and, more importantly, to protect employees against unwanted sexual conduct in the workplace that is both unfair to them and damaging to business productivity, employers should take the following steps:

  •  If you haven’t already, get management out onto work floors to talk to employees about their work environments. This does not mean questioning them about sexual harassment in the workplace. It does mean communicating about issues at work generally and observing how workers interact with each other. From there, steps to address problems or improve the workplace can be taken if needed.
  • Review anti-harassment policies, update them if required, and distribute them to employees. It may be better not to do this electronically. Massachusetts law requires the distribution of a sexual harassment policy annually, and doing so with a note to employees about the company’s commitment to ensuring a harassment-free workplace may go a long way toward what should be every employer’s ultimate goal: getting employees to believe they can come to management with problems rather than going to a lawyer to investigate their legal options. The commitment this process represents needs to be frequently reinforced if it is to have the desired effect.
  • Maintain an open-door policy to questions or complaints about improper sexual behaviors in the workplace. Be sure all managers know to be on the lookout for sexual issues and how to address any improper sexual behaviors they observe or learn about from employees. This will require training on some level. In all companies, at least one person should be designated to oversee harassment or other behavior-related complaints. The designee needs to understand when issues can be handled internally and when legal or other consultations are required.