By Anna Pajor
Harassment is still pervasive in the workforce.
Sexual comments toward underage girls? Touching? Requests for sex? You might expect to see this in a fictional TV drama, but not in an established, real-life fast-food chain. Still, that’s what allegedly happened in a Washington restaurant in 2019.
Worse: The general manager allegedly scheduled one of the teens to work with the very person who was allegedly harassing her even after a claim had been made. A lawsuit was recently filed, so we’ll see how this one plays out.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is nothing new, but companies continue to struggle with how to deal with it—even as more employees have been working from home the past couple of years.
Of course, most blue- and gray-collar workers are unable to take advantage of the same work-from-home opportunities, but white-collar workers have done so in droves. A Gallup study from last year found that 67% of white-collar workers were still working from home full or part time. Additionally, telework rates were higher among enterprise-level companies than smaller organizations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
None of this should come as a big surprise, but what might astound you is this: A report from All Voices found that nearly 4 out of 10 (38%) employees say they have experienced harassment while working remotely.
And the number of total adults (not necessarily in the workforce) who have experienced severe forms of online harassment, such as sexual harassment, stalking and physical threats, continues to rise at an alarming rate, according to Pew Research Center data.
“Roughly 9-in-10 Americans say people being harassed or bullied online is a problem,” the Pew Research Center wrote, and 55% consider it a major problem.
While online harassment is definitely on the rise, in-person harassment is far from a thing of the past even though numbers are dropping. In fiscal year 2020 (the most recent data available), there were more than 67,000 harassment claims made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission down from 72,675 charges in 2019. Racial (22,064) and sexual harassment (21,398) charges made up the vast majority of the complaints in 2020. There were also more than 37,000 retaliation complaints down from just over 39,000 in 2019.
For companies, harassment charges can be costly.
EEOC penalties alone can cost large organizations up to $300,000, but one study from 2018 put the total value of a sexual harassment claim against a company at an eye-opening $7.6 million (that’s 2017 dollars by the way). And then you have to consider the potential brand and reputational damage a harassment case can cause a company. Organizations must do everything in their power to create a safe working environment for their employees, and that starts with policies and training.
As Joni Hersch, a Vanderbilt University law and economics professor wrote in her research, “My proposal is that if the policy objective is to establish efficient deterrence, the sum of compensatory and punitive damages should equal the value of statistical harassment. To do so, the statutory cap currently set at $300,000 for the largest firms would need to be removed or at least increased to $7.6 million per claim.”
That should get your attention.
So what can companies do?
Here Are 5 Ways Companies Can Help Prevent Workplace Harassment
- I’d Like to Speak With the Manager: Managers comprise the front-line defense for keeping companies out of trouble when it comes to harassment. They need proper training and support from human resources to know how to deal with harassment cases. Managers who either shirk this responsibility or mishandle a situation put the organization at risk for fines, lawsuits and more.
- Take It From the Top: Companies need a solid harassment free workplace policy in place, and must implement mandatory training to protect employees and the company. That starts with training during the onboarding process and annual compliance course reviews after that.
- Where to Turn: Employees need to know exactly what channels they can pursue if they want to file a harassment complaint. (Employees should always have more than one channel to make any claims.) These types of situations are scary and complicated enough, and many people who are harassed dread coming into work. Being able to reduce any complaint anxiety is critical by communicating the process from Day One.
- Have (Good) Faith: From the top of the organization on down, companies need to make sure that investigations are done in good faith regardless of whether the alleged actor is in the C-suite on down. Employees need to know there will be no retaliation for making a harassment claim and that investigations will remain completely confidential.
- Terminate the ‘Termination’ Talk: One thing I often hear from human resources managers is that they immediately think “termination” when a harassment claim surfaces. Just like in a trial, people are innocent until proven guilty. It is critical to complete a thorough investigation first and not make any assumptions about who did what to whom. Objectivity is crucial.
Workplace harassment is a scary thing for employees. Keeping employees safe is paramount, so, when it comes to workplace harassment, companies cannot allow it to stay behind closed doors. Companies must optimize their anti-harassment compliance procedures and training for the good of the employees—and the company.
Want to learn more, I invite you to watch our on-demand anti-harassment webinar hosted by Kara Govro, Mineral’s senior legal analyst.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
- Training and policy requirements you need to know
- Key deadlines and dates
- How you can meet and exceed the 2022 mandates
Have more questions? You can also schedule a complimentary 30-minute HR compliance review with me, and we can start talking about ways your organization can solidify your anti-harassment policies and procedures.