The news reports are everywhere recently. Sexual harassment in the workplace is problem affecting every industry and employees of every level from CEOs to hourly employees. The good news is that, with all of the recent media coverage, sexual harassment in the workplace has finally been exposed for the true problem that it is. The exposure lends much needed credibility to employees who are courageous enough to come forward and report sexual harassment in the work place. The bad news is that many employees and employers still don’t know how to tackle this problem in order to ensure that real, sustainable change happens in the workplace. But there are some very important lessons that can be learned from all of the recent sexual harassment cases that will help everyone, employees and employers, achieve a better, more productive work environment.
Here are some steps that employees and employers alike can follow to help achieve this important objective:
- Identify and deal with the problems as soon as they arise. If we have learned nothing else from the sexual harassment complaints littering our newspapers recently, we must learn this: no one benefits from silence. Sexual harassment (or any other kind of discrimination) must be reported and handled as soon as a problem is identified. The longer the silence the worse the problem.
- Another important lesson from the news stories is the importance of documenting behavior that is sexually harassing or discriminatory in the workplace. This makes the reports more credible and also ensures that reports of harassment are accurate.
- If you are the victim of sexual harassment, unambiguously tell the harasser to stop. Be assertive. Do not try to be nice, to weather the storm, or send jokes or “LOL” in response to harassing emails. This gives the harasser an opportunity to understand that their behavior is unacceptable instead of having to guess or believing that the behavior is welcome. As the recent news reports make clear, victims of sexual harassment can sometime make the harasser feel emboldened to continue or even believe that the victim encourages the behavior.
- Put complaints or reports of sexual harassment in writing to your employer. Oral communications can be misunderstood or misremembered. If you are a victim, be sure to put the specifics of your complaint in writing so that the company can understand the problem and address it appropriately. If you are an employer, be sure to get the specifics and confirm that you have them before beginning your investigation so that you can ensure a meaningful response.
- Make sure to report immediately if you feel you are being retaliated against or if you observe another employee being retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment. The recent news stories have highlighted how insidious retaliation can be. Prompt reporting will help reduce the chance of retaliation resulting in job loss for the victim which is the worst result for the employee and the employer.
- Contact an employment law firm with experience in handling sexual harassment matters for confidential advice. If you are a victim, you must make sure that you report sexual harassment before your claims are barred by law. In Massachusetts that is 300 days. If you are an employer, an attorney can be the difference between a meaningful investigation or response verses one that exposes the company to significant liability.
If employees and employers alike use the recent news stories to help make meaningful changes in the workplace we will all be better off for it. We as a working society have an opportunity to make change for the better. Let’s not let it pass us by.