Listening for Sexual Harassment

“Oh my goodness! He’s so nasty, what a pervert, I was so creeped out,…” was just some of the water cooler commentary I would hear about one supervisor I worked with many years ago. I was mildly curious about what he had done or said to garner such consternation from our female employees but mostly I ignored the comments.  I thought poor soul, he had somehow made his way to the bad side of  my omnipotent, omniscient Administrative Assistant in particular and there was no coming back.

I noticed a change in her routine so I commented on how early she had been arriving to work.  She responded “I’ve been coming in extra early, so I don’t have to wonder where he is lurking, when I saw him hiding behind the tree that morning, It shook me up”. That got my attention. I asked who in the world is hiding behind a tree, why didn’t you say something?” She responded, “I’ve been trying to tell you”.  For the first time I thought “could this be harassment?”  I invited her into my office. That is where she placed Pandora’s box on the conference table and opened it.

For months she had been subjected to blatant and unspeakable harassment at the hands of her colleague; a man she crossed paths with multiple times a day.  Desperate to escape his advances, largely physical, and “nasty talk” she’d actually altered her schedule to avoid being stalked like prey in the parking lot as she was arriving and leaving work. I heard her making statements about him to the effect that he was “creepy”, and “perverted” but took the characterizations as her personal assessment, without inquiring how she had come to them. I was a new Manager at that point in my career and her direct supervisor.

Ultimately, an investigation was done and the employee was dismissed, but I often reflect on that incident and I ask myself, “why did I not respond sooner? Why did it take my employee changing her work hours to get my attention? why did I not hear her sooner?

I had heard it all myself in the workplace. I have often not been afforded the same level of respect or conventional considerations as my counterparts. I’ve been asked about the most intimate details of about black sexuality and subjected to behaviour so foul that words wouldn’t do it justice. As a matter of survival, I have developed a toughness, a tolerance for indiscretion and inappropriateness.

However, no matter how shameful or ridiculous the comments or behaviours, I have never felt fearful for my safety, or livelihood; nor have I felt that I was not in control the situation. Was it fair for me to expect my employee or others to adopt my tolerance based my experiences? The bigger question was around if I allow my personal experience to impact my responsiveness to my employees.

As my career evolved from Benefits to Human Resources and Staff Relations. Knowing what I know now, I have often reflected back on that unfortunate ordeal as a lesson learned. My years in Human Resources have refined my listening skills and sharpened my perspective when it comes to the employees I serve. Is it never acceptable to get used to sexual harassment or inappropriateness in the workplace!

Let’s Re-Educate Ourselves

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 prohibits, discrimination on the basis of sex, and sexual harassment is regarded as a form of sexual discrimination can be defined as follows:
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
  • Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.
  • Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim can be the same sex.
  • Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Employer Liability

  • Employers are strictly liable for harassment of an employee by an owner or high-level manager. This means if one owner or manager harasses an employee, even without the knowledge of the other owners or managers, the employer is nevertheless legally responsible.
  • Employers may be strictly liable for harassment by a lower-level manager, or by a supervisor if that supervisor has a sufficient degree of control over the working conditions of the victim. This means that the employer may be legally responsible for such harassment, even if no owner or manager knew about it.
  • Employers may be liable for the harassment of an employee co-worker if the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take action. This means the employer will be liable if the employer was negligent about preventing or stopping the harassment.
  • If an employee complains of harassment to any supervisor or manager, the knowledge of the supervisor or manager will be considered to be the knowledge of the employer.

Check Your Policies

Sexual Harassment may result in a lengthy, costly, legal action and can also trigger an enforcement action by the EEOC. As HR Leaders we are bound to protect our employees first and foremost by having comprehensive policies and procedures defining sexual harassment, and clearly defining a safe respectable process for an employee to lodge a complaint and timely and thorough investigation of an employee’s complaint. We are also obligated to educate employees and managers alike about sexual harassment policies and procedures not only in the protection of the employee but as a function of compliance.

Conclusion

Don’t wait for employees to say the words “sexual harassment”. Be an active listener and vigilant in your observations. If they are experiencing a questionable level of discomfort, it is absolutely your business so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Regardless of your personal experience and tolerances and biases, the laws around harassment are very specific, and failure to enforce your company’s codes can be costly.

Author: William J. Wiggins

William is an HR Business Partner for Eating Recovery Center who prides himself on providing sound direction and building collaborative relationships with leaders around Employee Engagement. His professional passion is helping partners manage their human assets with respect all things HR, including Employee Benefits, Onboarding, Diversity and Inclusion, and Employee Engagement, and EEO compliance. William has held positions in Health & Welfare Sales and Consulting, Employee Benefits and Human Resources serving healthcare, consulting, and retail organizations to include Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I believe that a true Human Resources leader is like a wizard that works feverishly behind the curtain pulling all the necessary levers to make sure that the path to success for employees and employers alike is a smooth one".

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