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Keep Sexual Harassment Out of Your Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is making front page news. The fallout should serve as a reminder for all employers to make sure their employees have a clear understanding of what constitutes this conduct and to know it’s not tolerated. The LHSFNA encourages all employers to establish a written policy on sexual harassment that addresses prevention, reporting, investigation and consequences.

What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment is any unwelcome verbal or physical advance of a sexual nature that creates an offensive, intimidating or hostile atmosphere in the work environment. The person responsible can be a supervisor, a co-worker or even someone from outside of the workplace like a vendor or customer. Harassment can occur on the job or offsite at a job-related function like a meeting or work-related social gathering. A victim can be anyone who is the subject of unwanted behavior or who witnesses the offensive conduct. For example, overhearing sexually explicit comments directed at a co-worker can be harassment even if that co-worker is not offended by the remarks.

There are two categories of sexual harassment:

  • Quid Pro Quo: The harasser makes employment decisions based on the victim’s reaction to the harassment (e.g., “I’ll hire you if you sleep with me,” or “You turned me down for a date, so you won’t be included on the next project.”). An employee could also have a claim if he or she is passed over for another employee who accepts this kind of quid pro quo offer.
  • Hostile Environment: Unwelcome touching, speaking, advances or the display or sharing of sexual material can create a hostile work environment for the victim or other employees. While this may not directly affect a victim’s employment, it can affect their work performance. It may indirectly affect their employment if they choose to quit and seek a job in a less hostile environment.

A Common Problem

A poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal shows that nearly half of the women currently employed in the U.S. have experienced sexual harassment. And it doesn’t always occur behind closed doors. According to the survey, 41 percent of men surveyed have witnessed a female colleague being sexually harassed.

Men are also on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual conduct. Of the thousands of sexual harassment claims filed last year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nearly 17 percent were filed by men.

Why You Need a Written Policy

Sexual harassment violates Title Vll of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This federal legislation applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. Employers with smaller payrolls are subject to sexual harassment laws in the state where they are located. Employers in Canada are also subject to sexual harassment legislation. A written policy tailored to your jobsite can help ensure a safe workplace for employees and a positive atmosphere for them to do their jobs. It can also protect an employer from costly litigation. Compensatory and punitive damages for sexual harassment can be as high as $300,000 and that does not include the employer’s court costs.

What Else Can You Do?

Communicating to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and scheduling sexual harassment training at least once a year can help ensure employees are familiar with the workplace policy. Designating and training someone at the jobsite to handle complaints and to recognize and intervene when they see sexual harassment is also important.

Because employees are often afraid that speaking up will jeopardize their employment, or because they believe it’s just something they have to put up with, sexual harassment is often not reported. However, the high-profile cases now coming to light are encouraging more victims to come forward, which may lead to changes in how many workplaces address sexual harassment.

In Florida, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has already reported being contacted by an influx of sexual harassment victims. “We will see women and men come to us that have been carrying this with them for 5, 10, 15 and in some cases 40 or 50 years,” said Clare Reynolds, President and CEO of the Crisis Center. “They finally feel now they have been empowered by what they have seen in the media.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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