Filling knowledge gaps and building awareness in the workplace. It’s how DigitalChalk serves the small to midsized business segment. This week we address the important issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. If you’re a business owner or HR professional, this inappropriate workplace behavior should most certainly be top of mind as it creates financial risk, negatively impacts productivity and threatens to increase employee attrition.
Bill O’Reilly, Uber, Sterling Jewelers – if sexual harassment takes place within the news industry, tech companies, and your local jewelry store, how confident are you that it’s not also rooted in the interactions of your own employees? These unwanted behaviors most likely exist in your workplace environment if you have not taken concrete steps to build awareness among your ranks and weave intolerance into the fabric of your corporate culture.
Sexual Harassment Defined
Let’s take a look at how sexual harassment is defined, who it effects and the dangers that surface when leaving it unchecked.
Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination. When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, it violates TitleVII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No employee is immune. Victims and harassers can be women or men, same sex, or transgender. Harassers can be supervisors, supervisors in other departments, co-workers, subordinates, or even clients or customers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment as:
“unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from persistent offensive sexual jokes to inappropriate touching to posting offensive material on a bulletin board. Sexual harassment at work is a serious problem and can happen to both women and men.”
Given the above definition, here are just a few of the behaviors that can be considered sexual harassment.
(Adapted from: Back Off! How To Confront And Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers, Margaret Langelan, author)
The Law’s Perspective
The law defines two types of workplace sexual harassment for which charges can be filed: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a person’s submission to or rejection of sexual advances is used as a basis for employment decisions about him or her, or used as a condition of employment. A single incident is sufficient to sustain a quid pro quo claim.
Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs if a pattern exists where sexual conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive and creates a work environment that intimidates or offends.
With this background, let’s dig into the scope of the problem.
Do Numbers Lie?
Numbers may not lie, but they may not tell you the whole story.
Based on a 2016 report from the EEOC, sexual harassment charges filed with their office have remained fairly stable over the past six years.
Those stable numbers may seem to show progress, but the sad reality of sexual harassment in the workplace is that many victims still do not make formal complaints or file charges. The reasons for not reporting sexual harassment include, but are not limited to, losing jobs or hurting careers, not being believed, believing that nothing will be done, and embarrassment and shame over revealing the situation.
“A recent study found that 1 in every 4 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A similar poll found 1 in 10 men experiencing sexual harassment as well. A fourth of men are concerned of becoming falsely accused of sexual harassment.”
(Brandon Gaille, “23 Statistics on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”, BrandonGaille.com)
- 64% of Americans see sexual harassment as a problem in this country
- 88% of women have been harassed.
- 79% of victims are women, 21% are men.
- 27% experience harassment from a colleague.
- 17% experienced harassment from a superior.
- 12% received threats of termination if they did not comply with their requests.
- 66.6% of victims were not aware of the workplace policies regarding sexual harassment.
- 50.4% were not aware of what department or person should be contacted regarding the sexual harassment.
(Brandon Gaille, “23 Statistics on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”, BrandonGaille.com, Nov. 2013)
- Business, Trade, Banking, and Finance
- Sales and Marketing
- Civil Service
- Education, Lecturing, and Teaching
(Brandon Gaille, “23 Statistics on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”, BrandonGaille.com, Nov. 2013)
If it’s true that a potentially large number of sexual harassment incidents are never reported, it’s likely also true that it is difficult to verify actual harassment statistics. But regardless of the statistics, it’s enough for all of us to know that sexual harassment is a pervasive workplace issue that can affect the quality of every employee’s work experience.
Fox News: Roger Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News, was forced to resign after a $20 million lawsuit brought by newscaster, Gretchen Carlson. And more recently, Bill O’Reilly, the network’s megastar, settled with five women for $13 million who charged sexual harassment, with more coming forward. As of April 19, he’s also been ousted by Fox.
Domino’s Pizza: The first ever court case of male sexual harassment took place in 1995 when a Domino’s Pizza male employee claimed explicit sexual harassment by a female supervisor. He was awarded $237,000 in damages by the court.
(AP, “Chain Must Pay Male-Harassment Victim”, nytimes.com, Nov 1995)
Regal Entertainment Group: The national movie chain paid out $175,000 in damages to a male employee harassed by a female co-worker. When he reported the harassment to a female general manager, she not only failed to address the situation, she also retaliated through “unwarranted discipline, unfairly lower performance evaluations and/or stricter scrutiny of performance”.
(Press Release, “Regal Entertainment Group to Pay $175,000 for Sex Harassment of Man by Female Co-Worker”, eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-9-09a.cfm, Nov 2009)
Cheesecake Factory: Six male employees were subjected to repeated sexual harassment by a group of male kitchen staffers. “Managers witnessed employees dragging their victims “kicking and screaming into the refrigerator,” the EEOC charged. The chain was ordered to pay $345,000 in damages.
(Press Release, “Cheesecake Factory Settles EEOC Suit in Case of Severe Same-Sex Sexual Harassment”, eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-9-09a.cfm, Nov 2009)
Wells Fargo Bank: Four female bank tellers claimed a female manager sexualized the workplace by subjecting the tellers to graphic sexual comments, gestures, images, touching and were asked to wear provocative clothing to attract customers. Wells Fargo settled the suit for $290,000.
(Press Release, “Wells Fargo Settles EEOC Same-sex Sexual Harassment Lawsuit for $290,000”, eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-15-14b.cfm, Sept 2014)
The High Cost of Ignorance and a Blind Eye
Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to federal Title VII regulations. If fewer, employers fall under any applicable state laws. If a sexual harassment claim for quid pro quo or hostile work environment is proven, employers may be liable for compensatory and punitive damages.
Some of the largest verdicts handed down in sexual harassment cases include Baker & McKenzie Law ($7 million), Chrysler ($21 million), Mercy General Hospital ($168 million), Novartis Pharmaceuticals ($250 million), and Ralph’s Grocery Store ($30 million).
(Erin Fuchs, “The 8 Largest Sexual Harassment Verdicts In History”, businessinsider.com, Sept 2012)
In addition to the obvious punitive costs if a sexual harassment charge is proven, consider the following ramifications of sexual harassment in the workplace that reach far beyond the monetary.
Costs to the Employer:
- Staff turnover
- Increased absenteeism
- Tarnished company reputation
- Increased payouts for sick leave and medical benefits
- Vulnerability to hostile confrontations
- Legal & consultant costs
- Lower staff productivity
- Poor staff morale
- Less teamwork
Costs to the employee
- Emotional & physical consequences
- Poor concentration at work
- Stress on personal relationships
- Fear or anxiety
- Sleep or weight problems
- Alcohol or drug abuse
(“Confronting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”, taasa.org, 2013)
Strategies to End Sexual Harassment
Let’s circle back to our intent for this post – to fill knowledge gaps and build awareness. At times, sexual harassment is deliberate and intentional. More often, though, it happens out of ignorance. Could it be that today’s more casual work environments and all-day exposure to unfiltered social media has desensitized us to the consequences of our workplace behaviors? That’s a topic for a future post. For now, let’s remember that the Supreme Court states that “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.”
- Protect your employees and your bottom line by taking these logical next steps:
Review your sexual harassment policy. Where is it? How is it distributed? Is it well-written and compliant with today’s state and federal laws? Make sure it includes:
a. A strong, easily-understood statement that says sexual harassment will not be tolerated and that, as an employer, you will aggressively enforce your policy to its fullest extent.
b. A clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. You might begin with the EEOC definition listed above and provide clear, easily- understood examples of related behavior.
c. An easy to follow reporting process.
d. An anti-retaliation statement.
- If an incident takes place, act on it immediately in a manner that aligns with your policy.
- Lead by example. As always, make sure that the C-suite and each person in a supervisory role wears their title honorably. Each of them are your brand ambassadors and their actions need to embrace the culture and vision you have built for your company.
- Educate employees and managers to comply with laws and company policies. Teach them how to recognize sexual harassment. Educate potential victims how to demand harassers stop. Set up an appropriate complaint process. As always, remember that repetition is the key to learning. Sexual Harassment Awareness training cannot be a one-time event but must be taught and reinforced on a regular basis.
Let us help with some heavy lifting. The on-demand training courses from our online course library can help bolster your learning and development program in this important area.