Many business leaders and employers want to stand up and support the #MeToo movement and make it clear that they want to make their workplace safe for women employees. The traction the movement has gathered has exposed ingrained sexual misconduct prevalent throughout businesses such as the film industry, politics, professional services, and more. Changing your company is a noble goal that requires a close look at your company’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment as well as the type of culture that is being promoted within the company.
Sexual Harassment Law
Both state and federal laws protect employees from sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment is governed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). These laws cover not only sexual harassment, but harassment based on race, religion, sex, pregnancy, age, and more. The state of California has several additional categories of protected employees such as sexual orientation and marital status.
Harassment of any type becomes an issue when the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or when the conduct is severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment for a reasonable person. Petty annoyance or isolated incidents do not rise to the level of illegal harassment, but continuous offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical assault, intimidation, insults, and similar behavior that interferes with work performance is problematic. The factors taken into account by courts when determining whether a hostile environment harassment claim is valid include:
- Whether the conduct is verbal, physical, or both;
- How often the conduct occurs;
- Whether the conduct is on its face offensive or hostile;
- Whether the harasser is a co-worker or a superior;
- Whether other employees or supervisors have joined in on perpetuating the harassment; and
- Whether the harassment is directed at one or more individuals.
The test courts employ when determining if behavior rises to the level of illegal sexual (or other) harassment is whether the conduct is subjectively and objectively creating a hostile or offensive work environment.
In addition to defining harassment, these laws prevent businesses from firing employees as a retaliation for complaining, testifying, or participating in an investigation into harassment.
Company Policies and Procedure
The best way to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace is to prevent its occurrence beforehand. Company policies against harassment coupled with training on what qualifies as harassment and what will happen to people who engage in harassing behavior will discourage much of the problematic behavior.
Company policies should also include a clear way for harassment to be reported and outlined next steps that will happen in the event of harassing behavior. When victims are confident they can report harassment without fear of facing retaliation, they are going to be more likely to come forward and report behavior. Additionally, as every situation is unique, you also want to investigate any claims thoroughly to ensure you’re taking appropriate action on a claim.
Changing Company Culture
Sexual harassment occurs at all levels of a business, but it is often covered up. Leaders, particularly male leaders, in a company need to come forward to show solidarity with the #MeToo movement. The more women see men who are willing to stand up for them, both at their own companies and in similar businesses, the more comfortable they will feel coming forward.