It’s probably not a good idea to talk about sex in the workplace, but completely avoiding the topic of sexual harassment could be a costly proposition for an employer.
In recent months, the subject has been become a topic of national conversation, starting with some members of the film and TV industry’s elite in the spotlight as either alleged perpetrators or victims, and now moving into the political arena and media companies. But it’s not a new problem, as those who work in the field of human resources know.
“Anytime you see stuff going on in the media, it makes people more aware, so it makes you think of things that maybe haven’t been in the forefront,” said Cheryl Morlote, president of the Lower Cape Fear Human Resources Association.
It’s not just an issue that can cost a business a lot of money in legal fees and lost customers. Sexual harassment, illegal harassment and workplace bullying can lead to a loss of productivity and bad morale, Morlote said.
“These things affect the bottom line in any company,” she said.
For HR professionals, addressing sexual harassment is a regular topic of discussion.
In North Carolina, as in most states, private companies are not required to conduct sexual harassment awareness training, though many of them do, Morlote said.
“Most of us do harassment training on a biannual basis, depending on how large the company is and how quickly they are growing, which may require more frequent training to keep everyone current,” she said of local companies.
High-profile cases, like the October firing of film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein from The Weinstein Company after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment and assault, can lead to the need to do more.
As a result of the reports about Weinstein and others that have followed, Morlote said employees and employers might be asking about their companies’ specific policies. “If you start to hear those things, you may be more inclined to say, ‘Even though we do harassment training every year or every other year, maybe it’s time to do a reminder because people do have questions right now,’” she said.
Wilmington-based attorney Benton Toups of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog works with companies on how to handle situations involving potential sexual harassment.
“A typical scenario is a company calls me, and they say that an employee has come into the office and complained that their supervisor has been making some … sexually suggestive comment to her or in front of her, some sort of sexualized comments that make the person uncomfortable,” Toups said. “When that happens, the company has a duty under the law to investigate the complaints, and if they’re substantiated, the company’s got a duty to do whatever it takes to make sure that the behavior stops.”
The most drastic action a firm can take is to fire the alleged harasser.
“That’s not always necessary, but sometimes that’s the outcome,” he said, adding that it depends on the severity of the conduct.
If a company has a policy in place prohibiting sexual harassment and providing a mechanism for reporting that harassment, then an employee has to give that company the chance to make it right before a lawsuit is filed, Toups said.
As a result, having a policy in place “is going to give you a chance to fix the situation … People don’t get sued for sexual harassment; employers get sued for sexual harassment,” he said.
Toups said he doesn’t come across much quid pro quo sexual harassment – that which Weinstein and others in the entertainment industry have been accused of in recent months.
“We just don’t see that very much. People by and large aren’t dumb enough to do that anymore,” he said.
The more common type is that which falls under the category of “hostile work environment.”
“It’s not blatant sexual propositioning,” Toups said. “But it’s creating an atmosphere that makes someone uncomfortable because of their sex.”