From Tinseltown to the Workplace: Sexual Harassment Takes Center Stage

01.19.18

#MeToo.

This hashtag has rocked social media sharing platforms and shattered sexual harassment myths over the past month. Shocking harassment and assault allegations railed against A-List personalities in Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and major news outlets across the country have served as the spark that gave way to a full scale movement embraced by the Average Jane and Joe.  Within one day of its launch, #MeToo had been used 4.7 million times on Facebook  by people willing to share personal experiences and engage in a national dialogue focused squarely upon the issue of sexual harassment.

MeToo is teaching us that sexual harassment knows no boundaries.  It reminds us that our workplace is no exception.  A 2016 study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that between 83 and 94 percent of victims of workplace harassment do not file a claim. This same study also asserts that between 25 and 85 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Additionally, in 2016, 16.6% of the sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC were filed by males.  Deanna Kempinski, our Senior Human Resources Consultant at Baker Tilly Vantagen says, “This is a problem that does affect everyone although there is clearly a difference in scope.”  Similar to harassment claims made by women, many cases against male victims are never reported.  Ms. Kempinski states “For men, it can be even more difficult to have the courage to come forward.”

Harassment’s Hefty Price tag
Mishandling cases of sexual harassment violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can expose employers and employees to serious legal, financial and reputational risk.  In fiscal year 2016 alone, the EEOC claims that it was involved in cases where sexual harassment victims were awarded over $40 million. This amount does not reflect payouts made through litigation, which in some cases can yield eye-popping figures.  For example, Gretchen Carlson’s 2016 suit against FOX was settled for $20 million.

Workforce Implications
A weak or nonexistent corporate position on sexual harassment can negatively impact employee health, morale and trust.  Performance and productivity can suffer as victims become more disengaged and dissatisfied with their jobs.  Weak policies can also be a deterrent for victims to speak up.  When policies are lacking in clear direction or do not allay fears of retaliation, employees may choose to remain silent.

The consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace also affect those not involved in the actual incidents of harassment.  Witnesses to this type of behavior in the workplace are more likely to feel uncomfortable and distracted.  If these same employees believe that not enough is being done to address a harassment issue, faith in leadership diminishes and employees may choose to leave the organization to seek a positive culture with more functional surroundings.

What’s A Man To Do?
Not surprisingly, the fear of being accused of sexual harassment is growing among men.  In the current climate, men are proactively taking steps to avoid any potential misinterpretation of a professional relationship with a woman.  For example, they may choose to cancel or relocate previously scheduled one-on-one meetings with a woman or expand meeting participation to include other employees.  If not guided by sound policy, this emerging dynamic can actually increase workplace tension and unintentionally segregate workplace environments.

Covering The Basics
A good sexual harassment policy informs as much as it serves as an employer’s commitment to keeping employees safe.  At a minimum, an effective policy should include the following components:

  • An unequivocal statement by company leadership expressing the organization’s commitment to preventing harassment in the workplace and to ensuring a safe, comfortable environment for employees.
  • A comprehensive definition of sexual harassment with clear examples of behaviors that constitute harassment.
  • A formal complaint process that is clear and easy to communicate to employees.
  • Reassurance for all employees that any and all reported incidents will be treated equitably under the policy and that confidentiality will be maintained to the greatest extent possible, without fear of retaliation.
  • A commitment to a thorough investigation and resolution of the problem.  Examples of potential disciplinary action should be included so that employees recognize the possible consequences of their actions.

Sexual harassment’s visibility may ebb and flow with societal conditions but regardless of how or when it happens, it is important that employers use times like these to think and act critically when it comes to how well they are positioned to address this fundamental aspect of Human Resources management in the workplace.

For more information on how this subject impacts your organization, or to learn how Baker Tilly Vantagen experts can help, contact our team.

Deanna Kempinski is a Senior Human Resources Consultant within Baker Tilly Vantagen’s Human Resources Consulting Practice.  Deanna is available to provide expert-level assistance in the area covered today as well as with the full range of Human Resources-related matters.