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Speak Up, Listen up: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Over the last several weeks, it feels like each time you turn on the television or radio, read a newspaper or visit a website, there is a new sexual harassment claim. While the stories coming out of Hollywood and Washington D.C. make headlines, these cases cross industries, professions and salary levels.  Until this recent wave, many victims did not feel they could come forward and share their stories until now, with the support of others sharing similar stories.

It is often difficult for victims of harassment to confront their harassers. At times, this can be a very effective way to end the sexual harassment. If a victim can tell the harasser the joke is offensive, the behavior is uncomfortable, the discussion is inappropriate, the harasser may be embarrassed or simply become aware that the actions are not appreciated and stop.

Other times, however, the victim tolerates the behavior fearing repercussions for reporting it, expecting apathy from their supervisor or HR Department, or hoping it will go away on its own, only to see the behavior escalate and continue. Sometimes, the victim will share the information with a friend or family member, who will encourage the victim to speak up and insist the behavior stop. The victim should speak up, in writing or in person. For that to happen, employees must have confidence that their Human Resources Departments provide safe, welcoming, and unbiased environments.

Federal and state laws prohibit sexual harassment, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” which can include “offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” A harasser can be any person encountered in the workplace of either sex. Additionally, the EEOC states that “the victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.”

Sexual harassment may be such that the victim’s enduring offensive behavior becomes a condition of her continued employment. This form of harassment is often called “quid pro quo” harassment.

EEOC states “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.” This is why it is critical that joking, teasing or sexual innuendo must be quickly and unequivocally addressed. There is no reason for that type of conversation in the workplace and its continued use may become sufficiently pervasive as to become harassment by having created a hostile work environment. 

We have all heard the term "hostile work environment,” but what does it mean? Incidents that rise to the level of illegality include frequent, pervasive or patterned harassment that a reasonable person would find intimidating or offensive. While harassment may include a termination, demotion or other adverse employment decision, it does not have to have such negative consequences to be harassment. Additionally, the more egregious the harassing behavior, the fewer incidents have to occur for it to constitute unlawful harassment.

As a supervisor, what can you do? First, employers should create and maintain a work environment in which employees and non-employees are treated with dignity, civility and respect, where harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. Supervisors should model and promote positive and respectful communication where everyone feels heard and able to honestly express themselves, even if they need to tell someone that the conversation is unprofessional.

There are some comments that may be considered a red flag that conversation is not ideal in your work environment:

“Can’t you take a joke?”

“Everyone else thinks it is funny.”

“Don’t be so sensitive.”

“We have always talked like that.”

 “Everyone knows we are just kidding.”

“You are going to ruin it for everyone.”

“We are just blowing off steam.”

If a supervisor hears any of these comments, they need to follow up on the conversation, step in and model the correct communication.

Second, it is important that supervisors take sexual harassment complaints and concerns seriously, involve Human Resources right away, and take good notes about the conversations. Clear documentation is very important for investigations.

Victims may need employee assistance program or counseling services if offered through the organization or the medical benefits. Victims may also request to go home or work from home. Some employees may feel most comfortable going straight to Human Resources to discuss an issue or formally file a complaint. It is important for employees to have a range of options for presenting allegations and for supervisors not to insist upon a formal chain of command.

Third, involve Human Resources. Your county policy manual likely includes language that any supervisor whobecomes aware of a situation of harassment shall notify Human Resources as soon as possible.

Additionally, it likely includes a section on retaliation — preventing retaliation against any employee who brings forward a good faith allegation of harassment. Supervisors must be vigilant of interactions that may be perceived as retaliatory. Transferring the reporting employee away from the situation or demoting them could be considered retaliation. Additionally, your retaliation provisions must protect witnesses to a complaint of harassment. No hardship may be imposed on an employee appearing as a witness in the investigation of the complaint. 

Fourth, ensure employees participate in sexual harassment training, let employees know how to report claims, be familiar with county policies and be familiar with state and federal law.

Whether the harassment is quid pro quo or hostile work environment, whether the harassment is a supervisor or a co-worker, whether the harassment is a suggestive joke, inappropriate touching, an offensive calendar hanging in an office or sharing of a phone number, supervisors must be committed to stopping such behavior.

Supervisors can create a positive working environment and culture where open communication and strong internal customer service prevent harassment in the workplace. 

All employees are entitled to work in an environment free from intimidation and humiliation, where they can do their best work and contribute to the success of a team that serves citizens. Harassment must be recognized in all its forms and must not be tolerated.


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