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Posted on SEP 20, 2018

How the #MeToo Movement Affects Today's Workplace

Although the number of sexual harassment reports in the workplace has remained fairly constant over the years, the momentum of the #MeToo movement has helped bring them to the forefront. The news is rife with reports of celebrities, executives and others who have resigned, been fired or even indicted on charges of sexual harassment, shedding light on many issues that employers need to address.

“Sexual harassment can occur in any industry, and although women are more commonly the victims, male employees experience sexual harassment as well,” says Hugh Devlyn, Vice President, Employee Benefits Sales Manager, Johnson Financial Group. “Organizations that fail to develop and maintain a nondiscriminatory and respectful work environment may face expensive lawsuits.”

Protecting your employees

Sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as some state and local statutes. By law, employers covered by Title VII have a duty to protect their employees from harassment by supervisors, managers and co‐workers as well as from non-employees, such as customers and vendors. Employers can be liable for harassment charges if they are aware of events and do nothing to protect the victim, confront the accused or resolve the issue.

Aside from potentially millions in legal costs, sexual harassment claims can result in lost productivity, decreased morale, an exodus of employees and damage to a company's brand.

Harassment by the numbers

According to a 2017 CNBC poll, 10 percent of men and 27 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.* The EEOC reports that almost a third of the 80,000 to 90,000 discrimination charges it receives each year include an allegation of harassment. Still, nearly 75 percent of individuals who experience harassment never report it internally.** That's a lot of potential liability.

“People may be hesitant to report harassment due to fear of retaliation or not being taken seriously,” Devlyn says. “That's why it's so important for organizations to create clearly defined policies and procedures to ensure individuals feel comfortable and safe reporting their concerns.”

Taking the right steps

“An employer's policy regarding sexual harassment is an important factor in creating a good working atmosphere and deterring legal liability,” Devlyn explains. An effective program, communicated from the top down, should include:

  • Training for new employees; for example, online education, videos and seminars. A focus on education and training can help employees recognize the difference between paying someone a compliment and language construed as harassment.
  • Refresher courses and team meetings.
  • Multiple ways to report harassment, including for those who witness but do not experience the harassment.
  • Protection for the accuser from retaliation (for example, reassigning him or her within the company while the investigation takes place).
  • An impartial investigation by a trained individual, which may require using an objective outsider.
  • A clear policy for resolution and punishment, which, depending on the investigation outcome, could range from a reprimand to a transfer to termination of employment.

“In addition, the policy needs to be consistent,” Devlyn adds. “You can't treat the case of a star performer who has harassed another employee differently than any other individual.” Documentation is also critical, particularly if the case ends up in litigation. A court judgment may be more likely to favor the employer if it can demonstrate that the company took every possible step to mitigate the problem.

What not to do

Avoid the following missteps:

  • Ignoring a claim of sexual harassment.
  • Responding but not following up. It's important to take every reported instance seriously.
  • Failing to protect the accuser from retribution.
  • Discussing the case with anyone not directly involved.

Protect your business with EPLI

Despite your organization's best efforts, it may be faced with a lawsuit. Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) can cover claims arising from questionable employment practices, such as wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation.

“A business could spend well into six figures fighting a lawsuit because an interviewer asked a job applicant an inappropriate question, or an employee made suggestive remarks to a co-worker. EPLI can help protect your organization from major financial loss.”

For more information about employee education, training and EPLI, contact an employee benefits consultant in your area today, or click here to view a recording of our Employment Practices Liability in the #MeToo Era webinar.

*CNBC, December 12, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/19/one-fifth-of-american-adults-have-been-sexually-harassed-at-work.html.
** EEOC, June 14, 2018, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/6-14-18.cfm.