By Bradley Hunt, Attorney at Law
There have been several high profile claims of workplace sexual harassment in the news lately, most recently with a claim by a former engineer at Uber that her manager sexually harassed her. Claims of sexual harassment must be taken very seriously by employers, who can be held accountable if the behavior of a harasser is ignored. In the case of Uber, the CEO just hired a third-party to investigate the claims.
What is Sexual Harassment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.”
The law does not consider occasional teasing or single incidents that are not serious to be harassment, although employers must be aware that behavior that escalates may quickly jump into this category. Behavior becomes harassment when it creates a “hostile or offensive” work environment or results in the victim being fired, demoted or believing he or she has no recourse but to quit the job.
It is important to note that both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment, and the harasser may be a manager, coworker, someone else within the company, the employee of a vendor or supplier, or even a client. The law not only protects victims of harassment, but also protects third parties who are not directly being harassed but who are negatively impacted by the hostile work environment created by the harasser.
What Can I Do If I Am Being Harassed at Work?
If you are being harassed at work, here are some steps you can take:
- Speak to your manager or HR representative immediately and explain what is happening. Follow up with a written summary of your discussion. They should take steps to address the harasser’s behavior. If your manager is the person harassing you, go directly to HR or your manager’s supervisor. If the person harassing you does not work for the company, tell your manager. Again, he or she should take action to stop the inappropriate behavior.
- Document everything that happens. Note the date, time, and write down as much detail as you remember. If there were witnesses, include their names. If you are comfortable doing so, ask the witnesses to write statements detailing what happened, then sign and date them. If the harassment comes via email or text message, keep copies. (If your company has a written policy about harassment, follow the instructions included there.)
- Ask the individual to stop. Explain that their behavior makes you uncomfortable and is not acceptable or appropriate. Add this to your documentation log.
- If these actions do not stop the behavior or cause the situation to escalate, you may wish to speak to an attorney or file a claim with the EEOC.
- Tell family members what is happening. They are likely to notice a change in your behavior and be worried. They may be able to help you feel less alone.
What Should I Do If An Employee Complains of Sexual Harassment?
Employers are obligated to provide a safe workplace that is free of discrimination, including sexual harassment. If an employee comes to you complaining of sexual harassment, take him or her seriously! While there is potential for an individual to file a false claim, as the business owner or manager you must take steps to protect the business. Here’s what you should do:
- Confidentiality is critical to your approach. Try to be objective and unbiased as you listen to all sides of the story. You may wish to have the HR manager sit in on any interviews you hold. (If you have an HR handbook, follow the procedures listed there.)
- Interview the person complaining of harassment. Get as many details as possible and document everything.
- Interview the alleged harasser and get their side of the story. Do not accuse them of anything – this interview is a fact-finding mission. Again, take notes so you will have full documentation. If the harasser is someone outside the company, you may wish to follow up any conversation with a letter summarizing your discussion and, if appropriate, stating your position that further harassment is unacceptable.
- Speak with any witnesses mentioned by either party and document their input.
- Your decision on next steps from here will be determined by whether you were able to determine fault as well as the severity of the behavior. In cases where the behavior is new and not severe, a written warning to the harasser may be sufficient. If you have any doubts at all about the best steps to take, it is a good idea to talk to an employment law attorney.
A work environment where harassment is tolerated can quickly become toxic, costing you good employees, damaging morale, and reducing output. Watching for and addressing the potential for sexual (or other types of) harassment is good business practice.
Each situation is different, but being proactive and immediately and thoroughly investigating claims of harassment will put you in a better position to defend the company should it be necessary. Coming to a quick and fair resolution is always better than fighting a formal EEOC claim in court.