Each day more and more women come forward to share their stories of abuse within the workplace and without. And people are actually listening.
In the not-so-distant past, the primary concern for some employers may have been the legal consequence of firing a worker after she internally reported sexual harassment. Now, as women become more emboldened to speak up and as the public becomes more receptive to listening, employers have more to worry about than just the legal repercussions. In the year 2018, merely an accusation could end a career, or even a business. Thus, it is more important now than ever for employers to implement workplace procedures for preventing harassment and properly handling accusations.
Addressing sexual harassment requires first understanding what it looks like. It might surprise you to know that harassment is likely much broader than you think. In general there are two types of sexual harassment—quid pro quo and hostile work environment. The hostile work environment cases are typically more difficult to prove because the question arises of just how hostile the environment must be.
Sexual harassment falls under the category of sex discrimination, which is impermissible under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be actionable under Title VII, the conduct must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986) (internal quotations omitted). A worker need not suffer an adverse economic effect to meet this standard. And, the inquiry does not center on whether the sex-related (not sexual-related) conduct was voluntary, but rather focuses on the unwelcome nature of the behavior.
Thus, even conduct that appears to be tolerated by a subordinate or coworker may constitute sexual harassment if the advances are unwelcome. Considering that the courts struggle with the concept of unwelcome versus welcome conduct, employers and their supervisors should hesitate to assume that seemingly innocent behavior is ok with a female (or even a male) colleague.
When employers receive a complaint of sexual harassment, they must act. In the current climate, the public will not accept a company’s claim of ignorance. Sticking your head in the sand is no longer a viable option when a woman comes to you to say “me too.”