Managing Sexual Harassment Claims in the #MeToo Era


gear-67138_1280Now that I am only posting twice a month, I have less opportunity to comment on news issues that affect corporate management. But the #MeToo movement accusing many public figures in the entertainment and political world of sexual harassment has had an effect on other workplaces as well that is important to recognize.

I won’t list all the men (and occasional woman) outed for their past behavior. What is more important is how corporate managers and Human Resources professionals should respond going forward.

With the increased visibility of sexual harassment in a variety of workplaces, more employers are likely to see claims raised by their employees. The same was true in the weeks after Anita Hill’s allegations of harassment during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings. Even though Senate confirmed Justice Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, sexual harassment became a topic in many workplace discussions that year.

In some ways, corporations are ahead of politicians in addressing harassment issues. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 106 S. Ct. 2399 (1986), sexual harassment claims have been serious risks in the workplace.

And ever since the companion cases of Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), employers have had a framework for how to minimize their exposure to claims of harassment based on the creation of a hostile work environment. Elements in that framework include:

  • Having a strong anti-harassment policy
  • Making it easy for victims to raise claims to someone other than the alleged harasser without fear of retaliation
  • Training all employees regularly on what the policy is and how to use it
  • Taking every claim seriously and investigating thoroughly, and
  • Taking appropriate action, if harassment is found.

And yet, even with these policies and practices in place, navigating harassment claims remains a minefield.

In the past thirty-some years, I have handled complaints against everyone from high-level executives to frontline employees. The #MeToo movement emphasizes that no one gets a free pass on harassing behavior.

I have dealt with everything from completely false accusations, to mentally ill employees alleging harassment because they are paranoid, to workplace flirtations and dating gone wrong (probably the most common problem), to quid pro quo demands in exchange for advancing a woman’s career, and even cases involving rape of a coworker.

When an allegation of harassment first arises, there is no way to know which situation one is dealing with. Sometimes the facts become clear very quickly, but other times the truth is hidden in murkiness. The standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but what is “more likely than not”—is there a credible complaint of harassment and what actions are necessary to stop it from occurring again?

When the allegations of harassment are false, the male (99% of alleged harassers are male) feels wronged and his career can be damaged through no fault of his own. And when the allegations of harassment are true, the woman feels disbelieved and disrespected by the slow pace of a thorough investigation. When the allegations cannot be proven one way or the other, no one feels the process has worked. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, coming to the wrong answer, or not addressing the problem with appropriate action, taints the workplace.

So what are managers to do?

The best way to handle a claim of harassment has not changed in the #MeToo era from the steps outlined in Burlington Industries and Farragher. Take every claim seriously. Treat all parties involved with respect. Do your best to find the truth.

And above all else, make it clear from your own behavior that harassment in the workplace—harassment of any type—will not be tolerated. Stop the jokes, whether they be sexual or racial or homophobic. Treat every employee in the manner you want your loved ones to be treated at work.

In addition, in the age of smartphones and social media, recognize that anything you say or do might someday become public. Would you be proud to have your language or behavior show up on someone’s Facebook feed?

Once you as a manager are modeling the appropriate behavior, expect your employees to do the same.

It all comes down to company culture. Make sure yours does not tolerate harassment of any type.

What changes have you made to how you handle sexual harassment claims because of recent publicity on the issue?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

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