Being on the investigative side of harassment complaints has been eye-opening. One of the most severe cases was brought to my attention by the irate spouse of one of my temporary employees. We had noticed that there was a high rate of turnover in a particular area, but no one could explain why and managers were assuming it was the late shift hours. One woman finally shared her experience with her husband after a confrontation with her supervisor. I am grateful that the husband shared the information with me rather than take it into his own hands so that it didn’t become an additional workplace violence issue. It took one night of interviews with about twelve other female team members to discover that this supervisor was telling temporary workers that if they didn’t sleep with him, they would not be converted to full-time status. That supervisor had no defense to offer and was dismissed by morning.
Less obvious but more common are lawsuits based upon a “hostile work environment” – one that is so pervasive it materially affects the terms and conditions of employment. It can occur where jokes, pictures, cartoons, emails, suggestive remarks or gestures, physical interference with movement (such as blocking one’s path), or sexually derogatory comments alter the circumstances of the workplace. In most instances, recurrent conduct is required to prove a hostile work environment, and a “stray comment” has been judged not to affect work conditions sufficiently to create an issue. However, some comments or conduct can be so severe that a single incident can create liability.
It does not matter whether the alleged harasser intended the conduct to be harassing or complimentary. It does matter that the individual “perceived” that they were harassed. This is where the “reasonable person” test comes into play. Would such an individual find the conduct severe and pervasive enough to affect their ability to do their job?
Female colleagues have shared many personal examples of this type of behavior: a male co-worker invading the woman’s personal space, frequent physical contact (leaning against them, hands lingering on arms, hugs, shoulder massages, etc). Most times, the women have dismissed it as “harmless” or haven’t shared because they think others would feel they are over-reacting. They just have a feeling that something isn’t quite right. When the actions become more suggestive or too familiar, that’s when they either seek out someone to speak with or start looking for another job just so they no longer have to deal with it.
I have had many opportunities to conduct conversations about harassment with employees, especially when they are in management positions. Once or twice it has been because of how they’ve acted in front of or toward me. One company owner to whom I reported felt he could make suggestive comments to me and would frequently refer to me as a “cougar.” Another senior manager believed it was perfectly okay to share explicit emails/jokes/cartoons with me and other females. And there have been several conversations with female managers who get a little too familiar with their male subordinates. It is my job to remind them that they are putting themselves and the organization at risk both financially and professionally. If they persist in the behaviors, it is my job to help them find the door (but never slam it!).
Sexual harassment is a serious issue for any organization because it damages employee morale, impacts careers, and negatively affects the bottom line (legal costs and punitive damages). It also creates high absenteeism, low productivity, and employee turnover.
What Can You Do to Mitigate Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
In order for managers to ensure their organizations are free from sexual harassment they should:
1. Have a written, published sexual harassment policy.
2. Go beyond merely posting the policy. Include a procedure for complaint filing, provide forms to do so, and offer the ability for an employee to talk with an HR representative.
3. Ensure that anyone who brings a complaint is free from any kind of retaliation.
4. Provide training to both managers and employees. Make sure it is part of the on-boarding process. Better yet, make it an annual requirement and include a test to ensure the attendants were paying attention. All such training should be noted in each participant’s personnel file, along with the results of testing, for proof of training in the event of a claim.
5. Take all sexual harassment complaints seriously, since managers and HR can be held personally liable and sued separately for mishandling a complaint.
6. Mitigate the potential for sexual harassment charges by creating an atmosphere that discourages improper behavior and offensive language, as well as inappropriate cartoons, drawings, photos, and calendars.
It is the responsibility of every worker and employer to refrain from behaving in inappropriate, antisocial behavior, and to ensure that sexual harassment is never tolerated in the workplace.
Linda Haft, CCP, SPHR, joined HRG in March, 2013, as Director of Human Capital Services. She is a Senior HR professional with over 20 years of experience as a true business partner, and has led major Human Resource initiatives for cultural change and organizational redesign across entire organizations. Linda is a member of the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) exam development panel for PHR/SPHR certification exams. She is a former Legislative Action Director for SHRM/Maine and is currently a member of SHRM/ ANSI Measures and Metrics Task Force. She is a member at large of the WorldatWork and was a former board member for the Lexington, KY chapter.