In an apparent reaction to the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #MeToo went viral with women (and some men) sharing on social media and other platforms their “moments” or experiences of sexual harassment and assault. The explosion of #MeToo posts began when actress Alyssa Milano urged her 3.25 million Twitter followers to show the magnitude of the problem and reply to her tweet with “Me too” if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted. Within 48 hours there were nearly a million tweets with the #MeToo hashtag and more than 12 million Facebook posts, comments and reactions.
So, just how common is sexual harassment or assault in the workplace? Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a study of workplace harassment in the United States, which concluded “anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” This is clearly a wide gap, but even a statistic in which 1 in 4 women alleges on-the-job sexual harassment should cause employers across the United States to ask what steps they can take to prevent sexual harassment.
The first employment law matter I worked on over 20 years ago was the defense of a sexual harassment claim – with the client wanting a female face on the company and in the courtroom. Although an overwhelming majority of employee sexual harassment claims are brought by women, sexual harassment is not just limited to one gender. And, harassment of any nature in the workplace not only negatively impacts the victim but also can have a direct effect on the company as whole, including low employee morale and productivity, higher turnover, lost time, and lawsuits. For these and other reasons, employers should take steps to maintain a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. But, how? Here are some tips for employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
• Create, communicate and follow an anti-harassment policy. A good policy will define sexual harassment, provide examples of conduct that could be considered sexual harassment, clearly state that harassment will not be tolerated and violators will be disciplined, set forth a simple complaint process (including one which allows a complainant to bypass the “chain of command” if necessary and one which encourages other employees to report observed harassment), and, to the extent possible, establish procedures to protect the employee and his/her confidentiality. Obtain legal advice on your policy to ensure it complies with federal, state, and local laws. Make employees aware of the policy and, remember, policies aren’t just lip service – refer to them if there is a complaint and follow them!
• Take complaints seriously. If there is a complaint, act immediately, and, if the complainant has any basis, take prompt steps to ensure the behavior stops and follow-up. Any incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace should be given a thorough and fair investigation, which may consist of an internal inquiry or retaining an impartial, third-party investigator.
• Create a Zero Tolerance Culture. This does not mean the workplace must be sterile with no personal interaction among employees. But, there are steps employers can take to cultivate an environment free from harassment and retaliation. One effective way is training – educating employees on what constitutes harassment and how to report it, teaching supervisors and managers how to spot problem behavior and how to handle reports, even if not “formal,” and training employees on bystander intervention techniques. Other suggestions include establishing diverse leadership, identifying and minimizing risk factors, inviting spouses or significant others to work-sponsored activities or trips, and addressing behavior even on the borderline of inappropriate.
• Monitor the Workplace. Make it a regular practice to get out and talk to employees. Look around and be aware verbal or non-verbal behaviors that could be offensive. Encourage supervisors and managers to be good role models who promote respect and civility in the workplace and keep an “open door.”
It remains to be seen how much change will result from the #MeToo and similar movements. But, one thing is certain, it is an important topic, and employers, not just for legal reasons but because it makes good business and people sense, should make every effort to provide a safe and comfortable environment for their employees. Having an effective prevention plan in place is one of the most powerful tools for keeping #MeToo moments out of the workplace.
Claudine Jackson is board certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in the area of Labor and Employment law at Brackett & Ellis P.C. She represents and counsels businesses in a variety of employment matters. Jackson holds extensive litigation and claims experience in federal and state courts, as well as administrative agencies.