Sexual harassment has been and remains a pervasive problem in the workplace and beyond. In recent days the reported actions of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have, by virtue of their celebrity status, brought this ongoing issue out of the shadows.
Accusations against a variety of individuals continue to abound with each passing day. The case of Bill Cosby, America’s trusted father-figure and role model for several generations of television watchers and comedy lovers was a stunning development for countless millions of people throughout the world. Charges of sexual harassment against film director Brett Rattner, Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman and comedian Louis C.K. are being actively discussed in the headlines as this article is being written. On an almost daily basis this story jumps out at us from a variety of unexpected places.
In the 1990’s this issue rocked the United States Senate with the case of Senator Bob Packwood, Republican of Oregon. Packwood was the powerful Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who lost his seat in the Senate, and his reputation, due to his repeated offenses. A former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, was caught paying off his victims in order to avoid the revelations, which proved to be true, and have destroyed his reputation and his place in history. As a result of all of these issues, both Houses of Congress are now requiring both members and staff to undergo special sexual-harassment training.
Charges of sexual harassment have in recent days affected major media outlets and media personalities including Rupert Murdoch and Bill O’Reilly, individuals we have relied on and welcomed into our homes and offices. Sexual harassment clearly hits every work place, social setting and cuts across all lines. The numbers tell us that 79% of reported victims are women and 21% are men. All too often we are taken by surprise when the charges are made and then proven to be true. On occasion charges are proven to be false. It is important to remember that under our system of law a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty or an admission of guilt is established.
No matter how big or small your drycleaning, laundry, or manufacturing business may be, it is vital that every business have a written policy covering sexual harassment, and reviewed with every employee associated with your business.
The Sexual Harassment Policy of the United States Department of State serves as a model for a clear definition of a written policy. The State Department’s definition is: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when an employment decision affecting the individual is made because the individual submitted to or rejected the unwelcome conduct or the unwelcome conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or abusive work environment.”
The State Department’s website specifically identifies the issues involved in sexual harassment. These guidelines are a solid basis for businesses large and small. The website states, “Certain behaviors, such as conditioning promotions, awards, training, or other job benefits upon acceptance of unwelcome actions of a sexual nature are always wrong. A victim of sexual harassment can be a man or a woman. The victim can be of the same sex as the harasser. The harasser can be a supervisor, co-worker, other employee or a non-employee who has a business relationship with your business. Unwelcome actions such as the following are inappropriate and, depending on the circumstances, may in and of themselves meet the definition of sexual harassment or contribute to a hostile work environment:
• Sexual pranks, or repeated sexual teasing, jokes, or innuendo, in person or via e-mail
• Verbal abuse of a sexual nature
• Touching or grabbing of a sexual nature
• Repeatedly standing too close to or brushing up against a person
• Repeatedly asking a person to socialize during off-duty hours when the person has said no or has indicated he or she is not interested (supervisors in particular should be careful not to pressure their employees to socialize)
• Giving gifts or leaving objects that are sexually suggestive
• Repeatedly making sexually suggestive gestures
• Making or posting sexually demeaning or offensive pictures, cartoons, or other materials in the workplace
• Off-duty, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that affects the work environment.”
In doing research for this article, these are some critical observations for you to consider when developing your business’s sexual-harassment policy:
• Employers must know that they are responsible for the conduct of their company’s supervisors and managers.
• Employers also have a responsibility to protect their employees from harassment by non-employees, including customers, vendors and suppliers.
• It needs to be clearly understood that employers are liable for sexual harassment among co-workers if they knew and took no steps to stop it.
• The existence of a company grievance procedure alone does not automatically insulate employers from liability.
• Employers must assume responsibility and take action immediately against sexual harassment once they are aware it is occurring.
Ignoring problems of sexual harassment can cost the average company in a variety of ways. Hesitation can result in low productivity, low morale and employee turnover and absenteeism. Additional costs can be incurred due to ongoing litigation or other legal fees. Following clear and proactive formal policies against sexual harassment in the workplace is one way to prevent lawsuits and drops in productivity and efficiency.
An important article to read for further information is Sexual Harassment in the Fortune 500, Working Woman Magazine, December 19, 1988. The fact that sexual harassment is still being addressed thirty years later speaks volumes about this serious, ongoing problem.
It is absolutely necessary that we all understand and develop guidelines within our businesses since this issue will continue to dominate the headlines and be with us in the years ahead.