Last fall, nearly a year after the #MeToo movement emerged as a major social force, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released findings that sexual harassment claims had risen sharply during fiscal year 2018.
The EEOC reported a 12 percent increase in sexual harassment complaints filed with the agency, the first time in a decade when that figure rose. EEOC attorneys filed 41 sexual harassment lawsuits on the agency’s behalf, twice as many suits as in 2017. “Reasonable cause” findings — an EEOC determination that there’s good reason to believe that harassment occurred — rose by more than 20 percent. Meanwhile, monetary awards recovered by the EEOC for harassment victims increased by more than 20 percent.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The #MeToo movement and all the publicity surrounding disgraced celebrities, politicians and other public figures has clearly empowered victims to come forward when in the past they might have stayed silent. A decade ago, a study showed that 75 percent of employees who reported mistreatment in the workplace experienced some form of retaliation, which can explain such reluctance. But with the landscape changing, these are dangerous times for any employer that doesn’t have a good system in place to prevent sexual harassment from occurring and to address it when it does. This system needs to be both legal (official policies) and cultural (examining your company’s work environment and addressing problems).
On the legal front, it would be a good idea to give an employment attorney a call to take a look at your existing policies to ensure each of the following:
- They’re easily understood
A common mistake companies make is to write important policies in lawyerly language. Such policies might comply with the law, but they can be confusing to employees. Instead, you want your policies written in a way your employees and managers can understand. For example, you need to clearly explain what sexual harassment is and then give examples (i.e. dirty jokes, inappropriate touching and sharing content of a sexual nature). You also need to make clear that these rules apply among co-workers both at work and outside, and that they apply to any form of communication, in-person, electronic or otherwise.
- You have a clear reporting structure
Make it clear that any incident should be reported immediately, whether by the victim, a witness or someone the victim told. Provide a clear list of names and contact information for everybody in the reporting structure.
- Consequences are clear
Don’t be vague. Let it be known that harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace and that any incident can lead to discipline, including termination.
- You’ve warned against retaliation
Make clear to managers that any retaliation for reporting harassment is prohibited and will be punished. And make clear to employees that their complaint will be thoroughly and sensitively investigated and that they won’t suffer retaliation for reporting an incident.
On the cultural front, it’s equally important to talk to an attorney about how to ensure your workplace can effectively enforce its policies. A few things to discuss include:
- Training new workers
It’s critical not only to distribute your policy to all new employees, but also to train them on harassment, proper workplace behavior and helping prevent harassment before it starts. Don’t assume their prior place of employment had adequate policies or provided such training.
- Reinforcement for existing workers
Make sure you’re redistributing your policy to each employee annually, posting notices of your policy in places where it’ll be seen (for example, in the breakroom or lunchroom) and providing annual retraining.
- Special training for managers
One of the most common issues leading to harassment liability is poor decision-making by managers. They’ll need the same training as other workers, but they’ll also need additional training on the unique responsibilities they have.
- Encouraging ‘bystander’ intervention
Beyond teaching workers to recognize harassment and report it when it occurs, train them to intervene and correct coworkers who are stepping too close to the line. This may head off bad behavior before it gets out of hand, and it can improve workplace culture and morale, making for a more professional and productive environment.
While none of this precludes all incidents of harassment, it makes it far less likely that your company will face legal liability in a harassment case or become embroiled in litigation at all After all, even if you win in court, litigation can cost you a lot in terms of time, money and bad publicity. Talk to an employment lawyer where you live to learn more.