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.

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.