In 2017, it seemed as if every week another allegation or investigation was announced of a sexual harassment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wrote its regulations on harassment in the 1980s, and America received its first major media exposure to sexual harassment in the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
Since then, harassment protections have extended to other protected categories, such as race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation. State and local governments also have added additional protections.
This serious topic finally has come to a full boil.
What is most disturbing from a legal standpoint is that many of the recently reported incidents were known by management to have occurred, yet it appears management found it convenient to ignore the inappropriate and unwelcome behavior. The ostrich defense — burying your head in the sand and ignoring everything — will never work in front of either a judge or a jury.
Employers will be held accountable for their actions, or inaction as the case may be.
Are you prepared to properly deal with a harassment complaint in your workplace? The good news is that employers can take many measures to mitigate damages and embarrassing litigation.
The law is clear that you have a duty to investigate complaints of inappropriate workplace behavior and conduct based on a protected class status, and thereafter take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
You may have a duty to investigate even if you do not receive a complaint.
For example, if you receive information such as rumors or gossip of unwelcome conduct that gives you some knowledge of a problem, then you have a duty to investigate.
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The law also holds employers accountable when the conduct was so obvious the employer “should have known.”
A prudent employer will have a well-written plan prohibiting harassment and retaliation, with multiple channels for reporting complaints, need-to-know confidentiality assurances and protections against retaliation for victims and witnesses.
Moreover, the employer must give appropriate training to employees and management about its policy, and the obligations of employees and management in maintaining a harassment-free workplace.
When was the last time you reviewed and reissued your policy? When was the last time you conducted training for employees and your management?
Should you do something before the company’s holiday parties, one of the more likely times harassment will occur?
When determining your 2018 goals for your company, make sure you give attention to our sexual harassment policy and training.
l Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.