Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment – Avoid Becoming the Next Headline

Recent public scandals involving high-profile men and sexual harassment reached new heights when Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein was accused by numerous women of conduct ranging from inappropriate to harassment to sexual assault. The weeks that followed have led to similar allegations against comedians, news anchors, politicians, and business executives across several industries – leading to many suspensions, resignations, and terminations as business leaders attempt to rectify wrongdoing and protect their companies from further liability. Only time will tell how this spotlight on sexual harassment will impact the average workplace, but now is the time for companies to address what is clearly a widespread culture in the workplace.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), tasked with investigating workplace harassment claims, announced on November 9, 2017 that it would be publishing updated sexual harassment guidelines that have been in the works since 2015. In 2016, the EEOC received nearly 13,000 sex-based harassment charges, although the number is likely only a fraction of the bigger picture because a significant number of individuals who experience workplace sexual harassment fail to report their claims. In 2015, the agency recovered over $164 million in damages related to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has been an issue in the workplace for many years, but the EEOC’s numbers can only be expected to rise following the recent wave of public allegations.

For employers, this means tightening up harassment training, policies and procedures. The EEOC’s guideline updates will help employers improve and implement harassment policies, but employers must understand the issues they face are bigger than policies. Most importantly, employers must take action to address workplace cultures that encourage or tolerate inappropriate behavior across the board. While an employer may not be dealing with Weinstein-level allegations of sexual assault, even minor instances of inappropriate behavior can lead to poor workplace culture and liability for employers.
In light of the current headlines, employees also may believe termination is the only appropriate response to complaints of harassment, despite an employer’s obligation to provide a fair and thorough investigation for the protection of both the complainant and the accused, and regardless of the seriousness of the allegations. These unmet expectations may lead to an increase of legal claims and liability.

Do not let a failure to educate employees lead to unnecessary litigation. Now is the time to be proactive about workplace harassment, affirm a commitment to protect employees, and correct existing issues. Proactive efforts require more than simply putting anti-harassment policies and procedures in place. Employees and management need training to understand what is or is not inappropriate behavior for the workplace, the consequences of inappropriate workplace conduct, and the implications for the company when complaints are not handled properly. The most effective anti-harassment policies focus on ending harassment, and the best way to protect your company is to prevent the problem before it develops into something pervasive. Take action to prevent your company from becoming the next headline.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years. We are available to discuss and assist employers with issues such as training, policy review and implementation, and investigations. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.