Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also deeply committed to Holocaust remembrance. On the fun side, Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.
I appreciate contributing to the below article posted to Bloomberg Law written by Jacquie Lee and Jay-Anne B. Casuga.
Sharon Fast Gustafson, the general counsel nominee for the EEOC, hopes to focus more energy on mediation than litigation, which she described as “necessary” but also an “expensive, imperfect tool.”
“Resolution of disputes without litigation is an important part of the lawyer’s job, just as it is an important part of the EEOC’s function,” she said before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee April 10. As general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Gustafson would manage the agency’s litigation program.
Gustafson’s emphasis on conciliatory measures mirrors sentiments expressed by Janet Dhillon, the nominee to chair the EEOC. That could signal that the agency might become less aggressive in filing lawsuits against employers and more prone to mediation and conciliation. Dhillon, who also awaits Senate confirmation, said “litigation truly is a last resort” in testimony before the same committee Sept. 19.
A Bloomberg Law analysis of Gustafson’s track record appears to support her stance on avoiding potentially lengthy litigation. Since becoming a solo practitioner in 1995, Gustafson has negotiated settlements or voluntary joint dismissals in more than 80 percent of the employment discrimination cases in which she represented workers in federal court.
The high number of Gustafson’s settlements doesn’t surprise Jonathan Segal, a partner at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia. The vast majority of cases don’t make it to court, he said. Her settlement rate is what he’d expect from a litigator, he said. It shows she’s “pragmatic and she resolves cases where she can.”
Gustafson’s Litigation Stats
Gustafson has been viewed as a somewhat unusual choice by President Donald Trump to be the EEOC’s top litigator. Republican administrations typically choose agency general counsels with more management-side experience, while Democrats usually appoint attorneys with a background representing workers.
Gusfason represented workers in nearly all of the federal labor and employment cases—42 out of 43—in which she appeared as an attorney.
Of those cases, 19 involved workplace discrimination claims brought by employees against companies, including United Parcel Service, Marriott International, and the District of Columbia. She represented an employer in one federal discrimination case. The claims in those cases are based on many of the same laws that the EEOC enforces. Gustafson also has represented workers in federal wage and hour litigation under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as in employee benefits lawsuits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Gustafon’s clients agreed to dismiss their claims after reaching settlement in 16 of the 20 discrimination cases. One of the cases settled at the appeals court level following the employee’s jury trial win. Another case settled after the worker scored a victory before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fewer Class Actions?
Employees nationwide filed more than 84,000 discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 2017 fiscal year. The agency filed 201 lawsuits, 30 of which were systemic cases. It has averaged a “favorable outcome” in more than 90 percent of its suits since fiscal year 2010, according to agency annual reports. The commission, however, doesn’t specify how many of those outcomes are court decisions or settlements.
The agency has made it a priority in the past few years to root out systemic discrimination, which involves a broad pattern of bias within a certain industry or company.
Gustafson emphasized the importance of individual discrimination lawsuits in her Senate HELP Committee hearing April 10.
“One of the best ways to attack discrimination and to get higher compliance is to keep going against those small individual claims and never let up,” Gustafson said. “I feel strongly that the EEOC should be doing both.”
Most of the agency’s lawsuits are on behalf of individuals. Of the 182 discrimination lawsuits the agency filed in fiscal year 2017, 124 were on behalf of individuals. The proportion of such lawsuits might rise under Gustafson’s leadership, given her statement and considering her federal track record shows no discrimination class actions, at least after 2005.
Consequently, some expect Gustafson might be inclined to address systemic discrimination through individual cases rather than class actions, Segal told Bloomberg Law.
A discrimination case against UPS, in which Gustafson represented a pregnant employee, is a good example, Segal said. That pregnancy accommodation case made its way to the Supreme Court, where a majority of justices in 2015 sided with the worker.
“It was an individual claim, but it had class implications,” Segal said. “It doesn’t mean she won’t look at systemic issues, she just may not bring them by class.”
That might be a winning strategy if the agency wants to combat sexual harassment in the courtroom, an issue the EEOC has been tackling for years but has put renewed emphasis on since the #MeToo movement began.
The nature of sexual harassment cases makes them difficult to litigate as a class because the circumstances can vary greatly between victims, Carolyn Wheeler, a former assistant general counsel for the agency, told Bloomberg Law.
“It’s not that it can’t be done, but you need to do a really exhaustive investigation before you file a case like that,” Wheeler said. That sucks up EEOC resources and time, both of which are already stretched thin at the agency.
Take the large number of women who sued Carrols Corp., a Burger King franchisee, because they allegedly faced sexual harassment and retaliation from managers, she said. The company eventually settled with the 89 women for $2.5 million, but a judge said the EEOC couldn’t pursue a class claim for that case because the agency failed to show a “pattern or practice” of sexual harassment.
“That’s how courts have looked at a lot of these cases,” Wheeler said. “Agree with that or not that’s the state of the law.”
I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog on the continued importance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The United States Congress created the Days of Remembrance as our nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust. This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) is today, Thursday April 12, 2018.
During the Holocaust, more than 11 million human beings were systemically murdered. That includes 6 million Jews, 2/3 of the European Jewish community at that time. That percentage still boggles my mind. In my family, the percentage was much higher.
But the numbers would have been even worse were it not for the countless “righteous gentiles.” The term “righteous gentiles” is used to refer to those who are not Jewish and who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. They are specifically honored in Israel and throughout the world.
Today, I share with you a link to some of their stories. Please read about these heroes. Their stores are beyond inspiring.
On a personal note, I thank the Polish Church that hid my great aunt at their peril. Her daughter later adopted children from that same Church. .
And, of course, there were the millions of American and other service men and women who lost their lives in fighting Hitler’s machine. They, too, cannot be forgotten.
Unfortunately, this year Yom HaShoah feels more significant than ever, at least to me. Anti-Semitic acts and attitudes are, according to numerous reports, at post-Holocaust highs worldwide.
So what does this have to do with Human Resources? Of course, one connection to Holocaust Remembrance Day is the “human” in human resources. But it is more than just that.
This is not a day or week in which we celebrate the achievement or contribution of any group or people. In remembering the Shoah in our workplaces, we are reminded of how important it is that we brook no hate. It is also a time to recognize those employees whose lives were affected and shaped by this horrific period in history.
One way to do so is simply to post on your Intranet a remembrance statement. You can find words and images all over the Internet. You still have time to do something today.
This is also a great topic for a diversity and inclusion program . The diversity in experience but the universal message that includes all: we cannot tolerate intolerance against any faith, race, ethnicity, etc.
Include in your anti-harassment training examples of Anti-Semetic comments or actions. Of course, this must be in the context of religion harassment more broadly.
And, of course, every day, we must do our best to make sure that hate has no place in our workplaces. A strong policy is not enough. When it comes to hate-based harassment, if you are in human resources or other leader, there is no such thing as a “passive bystander.” To ignore is to be complicit.
As Jews, we often say “Never Again.” And, when we say that, we mean to anyone–at any time–anywhere.
Shalom (Peace) to all.
I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog.
No one can credibly deny that sexual harassment is a persistent and pervasive problem. It infects all industries; none is immune.
While this blog focuses on sexual harassment, we must create cultures that do not tolerate any kind of harassing behavior, such as harassment based on race, ethnicity, age or disability. Harassment of any kind is the enemy of inclusion.
As employers, we must protect from harassing conduct not only our applicants and employees but also others who work with them. At the same time, we must ensure that there is due process for those who are accused of causing harm; after all, not every complaint is necessarily true.
In all cases, however: every complaint must be taken seriously; every complainant must be treated with respect and dignity; and every investigation must be conducted promptly, thoroughly and impartially. The process by which we investigate harassment claims plays a key role in determining whether employees–as complainants, witnesses or accused–trust the process.
If a company concludes that someone has engaged in sexual assault, unlawful harassment or harassing behavior, even if the harassing behavior is not “bad enough” to be unlawful, an employer must take prompt and proportionate corrective action. Sometimes, but not always, that means termination.
Of course, no matter how strong our commitment to avoiding harassment may be and appropriate corrective action where unacceptable conduct has occurred, our commitment will not be realized, unless there is a culture that does not brook retaliation by anyone of any kind. If people are afraid of retribution, they won’t speak up, the process will fail and individuals will suffer in silence.
To ensure there is neither harassing nor retaliatory behavior, employers must focus on compliance. This includes, by way of example only, a strong anti-harassment policy with a robust complaint procedure and strong assurances against retaliation.
We also must train our leaders not only to avoid bad behavior but also to call it out “in the moment” if they see or hear it. To be silent is to be complicit, and the cultural message resounds loudly.
Our compliance efforts should reflect and reinforce a culture where respect is expected and harassing and other bad behaviors are shunned, indeed condemned. In a strong culture, you don’t get along by going along with harassing conduct. You get along by treating colleagues respectfully.
This is not to suggest compliance is irrelevant and culture is everything. The key is to marry culture and compliance.
Your compliance efforts should improve your culture and your culture must inform your compliance. Bottom line: our compliance efforts must become part of our cultural DNA.
I am pleased to share my latest article posted to Entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs live to create, develop and refine products and services. They love using creativity to make a difference. The smart ones know they need the support of those who are comfortable with administrative stuff. Somebody has to make the trains run on time!
Administrative work needs to be valued but, over and over, I hear entrepreneurs complain they spend too much on administrative work of questionable value. “Administration” can become a behemoth that crushes creativity and steals time. Here are four red flags that administration may be interfering with your mission.
1. To get an answer you have to talk with many people.
If you regularly need to speak with five people to get one answer, you have a problem. Time is not only money but also energy. When no one knows the whole picture, then those with power will have more power but at the expense of profitability and the sanity of the employees.
2. Regularly hearing “not my job.”
Most employees sincerely want to do a good job. More often than not, employees welcome the opportunity to expand their skill. Of course, there is the occasional employee who will say “not my job.” But, what if that is something you routinely hear from different people in different words or ways?
The pattern may speak volumes. As insane as it sounds, the employees may have been instructed not to help. Use your people skills to ask directly and respectfully why the resistance. Listen not only to what is said but also what is not said. You may find the employee is uncomfortable with not helping as you are in getting the help you need. But, the employee is simply following orders.
3. Rigid rules instead of value-based rules.
We need values-based rules, such as not tolerating harassing conduct, and to enforce such values-based rules aggressively. This is different from rigid rules relating to operations that have no relationship to values or the evolving nature of business.
Every organization must have structure. But, some rules are implemented just to give those who enforce them power. In other cases, a rule may have made sense at a given time but no longer does. Ask why the rule exists. Sometimes people don’t even know why they have rules other than, “We always have done it this way.”
Other times the rules assume the worst of all employees. Guess what: that’s what they bring out, too.
4. Redundant paperwork.
A friend of mine refers to the term as “administrivia.” The more forms, the better. To increase the torture, administration insists on multiple signatures. Worse yet, only certain people can fill out those forms. A salesperson I met took a job for less pay because she was tired of filling out forms rather than taking care of customers.
If you are considering applying for a job with the government to escape the behemoth bureaucracy that hides under the label of administration, you have a problem.
What do you do? Stop complaining about administration if you feel your administrative function is out of control. Make sure those in leadership know where administration provides support or where it creates unnecessary obstacles.
If you provide factual concrete examples to leadership where administration provides unnecessary obstacles, you should get relief. If not, you may need to look to another employer to provide it.
I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog.
Responsible employers, among other steps, train managers on their “bystander” obligations. It is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. As a bystander with power, if you see or hear harassing behavior, you must respond to it. But how?
Let’s take a “hypothetical.” A business meeting takes place among executives. There are four men and one woman. During the meeting, the group realizes they are not going to meet Wall Street’s expectations. One of the men snaps “oh F…”
After he said it, the F bomber looks to the one woman at the table and says, “I’m sorry.” Another man at the table digs the hole deeper by adding: “He did not mean to offend you.” [How did he know that?]
By focusing on the one woman at the table, both male executives not only drew attention to her (re-victimization) but also suggested that she was a fragile creature who needed to be rescued and protected from their vulgar mouths (paternalism).
In this hypothetical, the woman was not offended by the expletive when it was used in response to bad economic news. But she certainly did not like the attention being placed on her. Having finished reading Jane Austin, she was not going to fall off her Victorian chair because of a curse word.
In this case, if anything were to be said, it should have been: “let’s keep it professional” but without focusing on the woman.
Change the facts: what if what was said was a “joke” that demeaned women? Should not someone apologize to her now?
NO! Again, that only makes her the focus. In other words, it makes it worse. Plus, it suggests, were she not there, the demeaning comment would have been okay.
The focus should be on the person who made the comment. Looking at the person who said it, someone with power (including HR) should say: “That is offensive to me. We will talk later.”
Respond “in the moment” so that others do not assume your silence is complicity. Then, take appropriate corrective action more confidentially.
Preventing harassment is more than preventing liability; it is about preventing harm. We need to train on “in the moment:” responses to bad behavior, or we may create harm in the process of trying to correct it.
THIS BLOG SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATION OR ESTABLISHING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.
I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog.
As a result of the “great awakening” last year of the persistence and pervasiveness of sexual harassment, we all know that more must be done to tackle this scourge. Companies are looking to enhance their preventive efforts, and, of course, that must start at the top.
To minimize the burden on victims, employers are empowering “bystanders.” For examples, employers are—or should be–modifying their anti-harassment complaint procedures to the extent necessary to make clear that an employee does not have to be the object of unacceptable conduct to raise a concern. Employees can raise concerns if they are “bystanders,” that is, if they see, hear or otherwise become aware of harassing conduct.
Leadership training also should include a bystander component. If you have power and you see or hear harassing behavior, you must make clear, “in the moment,” the conduct is unacceptable and then take prompt and proportionate corrective/disciplinary action.
I keep asking myself: what more can bystanders do? I have one suggestion for consideration: peer-to-peer interventions.
Take the following example:
- An employee sees his friend look a female co-worker “up and down.” To the best of the employee’s knowledge, no one but he has seen the unacceptable conduct.
- The employee has no power over his friend. And, he does not want to get his friend in potential trouble by filing a complaint, but does not want to ignore the conduct either.
If the employee is a true friend, he will talk with his peer. Consider the following response:
- I have bad news and good news.
- The bad news is that the way you just looked Jane “up and down” is not okay.
- The “good news” is that I am telling you now so you don’t ever do it again.
- This conduct demeans women and makes you look bad, too.
- Please promise me you won’t do this again and will review the Company’s anti-harassment policy.
The emperor wore no clothes because no one told him he was wearing none. There are degrees of unacceptable conduct, and sometimes a peer can jump in before what he or she sees or hears causes harm not only to others but also to his or her friend.
Of course, there are legal nuances that need to be navigated before incorporating peer-to- peer interventions into your employee training/education. Those nuances go beyond this blog
For now, it is very simple: friends do not let friends engage in harassing behaviors.
I am pleased to share my latest article posted to Bloomberg Law Insights.
We hear many people use the terms “sexual misconduct” or “sexual harassment” to describe a continuum of harassing behaviors. Further, more and more employers are adopting or reissuing “zero tolerance” policies for such collectively defined behaviors.
Of course, we must put an end to the litany of horrific behaviors to which women (and some men) have been subjected. There is no defense to the indefensible.
But we also need to be careful not to use a single label to describe a broad spectrum of unacceptable conduct. For example, we all know that a sexually suggestive comment on someone’s appearance is objectively unacceptable. However, if we put that comment in the same category as sexual assault, we risk minimizing the seriousness of the latter by lumping it with the former.
That is part of the danger in zero-tolerance messaging. At first blush, “zero tolerance” sounds good. However, it may be heard as suggesting that, regardless of the severity of the unacceptable conduct, the
wrongdoer will be terminated.
This is dangerous because it may discourage victims who just want the problematic behavior to stop from reporting it because they do not want the wrongdoer to be terminated. Yes, she (or he) will not be a
silence-breaker but instead will suffer in silence to avoid someone else’s suffering more.
Zero-tolerance messaging is dangerous for another reason. A leader who becomes aware of unacceptable conduct by a star performer may not report it for fear that the star will be terminated. The thinking is entirely unacceptable but it is also foreseeable.
So, instead of lumping all behaviors under one label, we need to look at a hierarchy of bad behaviors. Instead of applying corporate capital punishment in every case, we need to take proportionate corrective
action based on how bad the conduct is. At a very minimum, the corrective action must be reasonably calculated to deter further unacceptable conduct.
With this background, here is a hierarchy of behaviors that constitute misconduct or harassment for employers to consider when preparing policies, training programs, investigations, and corrective actions.
1. Lack of Respect/Civility
The law does not require that employers be respectful or civil. Yes, an executive can yell and intimidate its employees, so long as it does not target employees for such hostile conduct based on their gender,
race, religion or other “protected group” status.
While such unacceptable conduct does not violate the law, it violates human decency. Plus, it is bad for business. Employees who are bullied (as well as those who witness it) underperform, if they do not leave
for a better workplace.
Further, disrespectful or uncivil behavior creates fertile soil for harassing behavior that may break the law. One witness who testified before the EEOC Select Task Force on Harassment called incivility the
“gateway drug” to harassment.
For all of these reasons, employers are well advised to respond to disrespectful, uncivil and abusive behavior, even if not unlawful. While employees may call such behavior harassment, employers must be
careful to avoid the label. It may not be.
2. Gray Areas
Telling a colleague that her or his new suit is “sharp” at a social event is not harassing behavior. Conversely, telling that colleague she looks “hot” in that new suit is harassing behavior. Let’s leave what is clear and enter the land of gray.
What if a male colleague tells a female colleague she looks “attractive” in that suit. He may mean “nice,” but his use of “attractive” may be heard as “hot.” The same word may have very different meanings between the parties to the communication.
We all need to be more thoughtful about what we say and do. If a word can have a sexual or suggestive meaning, then find another word.
As employers, we need to keep in mind that not all cases are as black and white as those we have read or heard about during the last few months. In some of the complaints we receive, the conduct falls into gray areas. In such areas, at least for the first instance of such conduct, proportionate corrective action may consist of non-punitive coaching or counseling.
3. Sexually Harassing but Not “Bad Enough” to Be Illegal
Under federal law, for sexual harassment to be actionable, among other factors, it must be severe or pervasive. Some state or local jurisdictions, such as New York City, have established lower hurdles that
must be met for conduct to be actionable.
So, at least under federal law, the following behaviors, in and of themselves, probably do not constitute unlawful conduct:
• a sexist “joke”;
• an inappropriate comment of a sexual or suggestive nature; or
• a leer or a gawk
To prevent harm to employees and to avoid legal liability, employers should respond to sexually harassing behavior, even if the behavior in and of itself is not unlawful. In an employer’s preventive efforts, this message must resonate loud and clear. An employee does not have to violate the law to violate the employer’s policy.
However, in taking corrective action in these circumstances, employers should avoid the legal label. Use “sexually harassing behavior” rather than “sexual harassment.”
But, even here, distinctions must be made within the category of “sexually harassing behavior.” For example:
• If an executive makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse than if a lower-level employee
does the same. Power magnifies the wrong.
• If a lower-level employee makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse if he has done so before and been warned not to do it again.
The label we apply to this category of unacceptable conduct does not alone dictate the nature of appropriate corrective action. What is proportionate also may depend on myriad other factors.
4. Sexual Harassment
Some conduct, in and of itself, constitutes sexual harassment.
The clearest example is when a supervisor or other higher-ranking employee conditions the granting of any term, condition, or benefit of employment on a subordinate’s submission to sexual advances or
punishes the subordinate for not submitting to them. This is often what is referred to as “quid pro quo” harassment, that is, “this for that.”
Another example may be use of the “C” word. Some courts have found that saying the “N” word once may create a racially hostile work environment. A court very well could find that using the “C” word once
may create a sexually hostile work environment.
If conduct is or may be sexual harassment in and of itself, the proportionate corrective action is almost always termination. I say “almost always” rather than “always” because there could be an exception,
such as if the employee’s supervisor used the same hate word and the subordinate said he went “along to get along” with his supervisor. In these circumstances, the supervisor should be terminated. The case of the subordinate may be less clear.
While the severity of the conduct in these cases must inform the level of corrective action, employers still may wish to stay away from the legal label. Employers can do what is right for their employees without
necessarily making what may be argued to be an admission of liability.
5. Sexual Assault
In some high-profile cases, we are dealing with more than the civil wrong of sexual harassment. We are dealing with a criminal wrong: sexual assault.
If, after an appropriate investigation, an employer concludes that there has been a sexual assault, there is only one proportionate remedy: termination.
In this regard, it is important to emphasize that law enforcement may have elected not to pursue the matter does not mean the employer should ignore the matter. While the determination by law enforcement may be one factor an employer may consider, it rarely will be determinative.
Even where an employer concludes there was a sexual assault, such as grabbing a woman’s breasts or genitals, the employer still is better off avoiding legal labels and describing the behaviors.
While there is a continuum of bad behavior, each category does not exist in isolation. We need to recognize that each level of the hierarchy of bad behavior creates a cultural environment where the next level of bad behavior is more likely to occur. Just as lack of civility can be the “gateway” to sexual harassment, sexual harassment can be the gateway to sexual assault. We must have zero tolerance to bad behavior but with a proportionate response to how bad the behavior is so that the bad behavior is not repeated or becomes worse.
This article is not legal advice and does not apply to specific factual situations.
I am pleased to share my latest article written for SHRM.
Good policies—including your anti-harassment policy—can help shape the workplace culture. Here are five general recommendations for HR professionals to consider as they revisit their organizations’ existing anti-harassment policies.
Don’t Be Limited to Sexual Harassment
Every anti-harassment policy should cover sexual harassment. But we cannot forget that other kinds of harassment are equally unlawful and must be addressed, too.
Simply stated, harassment based on any protected status is prohibited. This would include race, ethnicity and religion.
Imagine the question you’ll be asked at a deposition in a lawsuit from one of your employees if your policy addresses sexual harassment but not race: “Why do you think sexual harassment is worse than racial harassment?” There’s no good answer.
Avoid the question by making sure your policy is not limited to sexual harassment.
Avoid Legal Definitions
All of us have seen policies that quote regulations published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The legal definition is fine for lawyers but, without more context, provides inadequate notice to employees.
You must include real-life examples of unacceptable conduct in your policy, examples that will resonate in your organization’s culture.
Sometimes, employers struggle with how much detail to provide. I get it. You don’t want to make individuals uncomfortable with a policy that was designed to make the working environment more comfortable.
Why not make this concern explicit in the policy? State that your intent is not to make anyone uncomfortable but instead is to make clear what is unacceptable so that employees have a comfortable working environment.
Even with this disclaimer, please be thoughtful on how you describe prohibited conducted. For example, every policy should include the phrase “hate words.” But I would never use the actual words.
However, you can give examples without spelling them out. For example, you might say: “Use of hate words, such as the ‘n-word.’ ”
Don’t Focus on What Is Prohibited
In order for harassment to be unlawful under federal law, it must be, among other factors, severe or pervasive. The more severe it is, the less pervasive it need be. The converse is true.
However, employers do not want to wait until conduct is unlawful before prohibiting (or responding to) it. The goal is to prevent and remedy harassing conduct before it rises to the level of illegality.
Therefore, it is recommended that, within a policy, employers lead off the examples of prohibited conduct with something like: “The following behaviors are unacceptable and therefore prohibited, even if not unlawful in and of themselves.”
The law sets a minimum. You want to make clear that you will not tolerate unacceptable conduct, even if it is not unlawful.
On a related note, it is dangerous to start your list of prohibited conduct with something like: “Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to … ” This is problematic for multiple reasons.
First, the conduct at issue may not be harassment as a matter of law. Mocking a disabled employee’s walk is harassing behavior based on disability. But, at least under federal law, if there is nothing more, it is probably not enough in and of itself to create a hostile work environment.
Second, if your prohibitions are framed in terms of legal wrongs, your corrective actions may need to be, too. And here you risk defamation claims.
That is, the conduct may not be severe or pervasive enough to violate federal law. But it may be bad enough to meet your judgment as to what is unacceptable, and therefore, it may be prohibited. Why apply a standard to conduct you may not be able to prove?
Drill Down on Sexual Harassment
Of course, you will want to include quid pro quo harassment and give an example of what that means—for example, requiring an employee to submit to sexual advances as a condition of a promotion.
But you also will want to include examples of conduct that does not constitute quid pro quo harassment that may nonetheless give rise to a hostile work environment. Common examples include sexual bantering, sexual “jokes” and inappropriate touching.
However, do not limit your examples to the strictly sexual. In particular, do not forget to include examples that involve pregnancy as well as gender-biased statements, such as stereotypes about women or men.
It is not just comments about someone’s sexual desirability that may give rise to a hostile work environment. Comments about someone’s perceived lack of attractiveness can give rise to a hostile work environment. Sexual objectification—favorably or negatively—is unacceptable.
Consider the Scope of the Prohibitions
It is helpful to make it clear how the prohibitions apply. Here are a few suggestions:
◾ First, make clear that the prohibitions apply to employees and nonemployees alike. Your employees cannot subject nonemployees with whom they work to prohibited conduct, and they should use the complaint procedure if a nonemployee with whom they work engages in such conduct.
◾ Second, be careful not to suggest that the policy applies only in the workplace. At a very minimum, make clear that the policy applies to company-sponsored social events.
The policy should make explicit that the prohibitions apply not only to the spoken or written word but also to e-mail, text messages and social media posts. I have observed a steady rise in the number of cases of harassment involving text messages and social media, so employees should be put on notice.
Of course, some social media may be strictly private. That is rare but possible. Consider language to the following effect: The harassment policy applies to social media posts, tweets, etc., that are about or may be seen by employees, customers, etc.
Yes, the employee’s Facebook account may be configured as private. But if co-workers are friends and see the posts, the posts are fair game for corrective action.
Of course, a strong anti-harassment policy is only half the equation. The other half is a robust complaint procedure, which will be addressed in an upcoming column.
I am pleased to share my latest post to Philadelphia Business Journal.
When allegations initially were made against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, I admit I was not surprised. While I was not aware of their reputations, I always found both of them somewhat “creepy.”
When multiple individuals came forward corroborating each other, it became clear that we are dealing with serial harassers. Again, I was not surprised.
This is important because the additional evidence confirmed my emotional reactions to them. I know enough not to make investigatory findings based on an emotional pre-disposition, but everyone who conducts investigations needs to be aware of their own emotional predispositions so that investigations do not end up with “confirmation bias.”
Then, came the termination of Matt Lauer. I was, to put it mildly, shocked.
For many years, I started my mornings with Katie and Matt. I respected and like both of them. I had “welcomed” them into my home.
While Matt Lauer denies some allegations, he has admitted wrongdoing. In his first public statement since being fired from NBC’s “Today” show, Lauer said “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.”
I thought Matt was smart and likeable. More importantly, my sense was that he was a decent man.
So, when the allegations against Matt Lauer were released, and more women have since come forward, I thought: “this does not sound like Matt Lauer.” Of course, I don’t know him but his conduct as it has been revealed did not comport with my perception of him.
In workplaces, managers routinely receive complaints about other employees who allegedly have engaged in harassment. How they respond is incredibly important.
I was aware of my emotional reaction to Weinstein, on the one hand, versus Lauer, on the other hand. But what if my emotional reactions were reflected in my verbal responses as a manager.
What if I had said, about Weinstein, “I’m not surprised.” That would have suggested knowledge, even if not the case.
What if I had said, about Lauer, “That does not sound like Matt!” I would have been diminishing the allegations based on how I perceived the alleged wrongdoer.
When we train managers, it is absolutely critical that we provide them with guidance on how to respond “in the moment” to allegations of harassment. If we don’t, they may focus on how they feel and not the woman (or man) before them.
In my view, the appropriate response to a complaint starts with: “Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. We take them very seriously.”
Yes, it is human to have an emotional reaction based on your view of the individual who allegedly has done wrong. But, it is inappropriate to share that reaction when someone has the courage to step forward, regardless of whether you end up being right or wrong.
The truth is that none of us knows for certain who would–or would not–engage in sexually harassing behavior. That’s why investigations are so important, without assumptions, one way or the other.
I believe that Lauer is sorry. I hope that it is not simply because he got caught.
I thought I knew Matt Lauer. I was wrong.
But again we have been rocked by explosive allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, there are now more than 30 women who have stepped forward. Weinstein admits to bad behavior but claims it was all consensual. From what I have read, this is not a good defense, even for a science fiction movie.
Weinstein is far from the only predator in Hollywood, and Hollywood is just a symptom of the problem. The casting couch can affect who gets plum assignments, leads, contacts, etc. in any industry. Few men with power would ever consider, let alone engage in, the kind of conduct engaged in by Weinstein and others but they must do more than just refrain from the indefensible. With power, men have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to create cultures where harassment does not flourish. So what do we do?
1. Stand up in the moment.
You don’t need to have a daughter to stand up. You just need a conscience and a spine. So speak up if you see or hear bad behavior. To be silent is to condone. Yes, the worst behaviors are very often private but sometimes they are accompanied by less serious but still bad public behavior. For example, don’t laugh at the sexist jokes. Instead, make clear they are offensive to you and then take corrective action.
The less serious public behaviors may be but the tip of the iceberg. Where appropriate, engage a third party to see if there is more than meets the eye. Climate surveys by skilled professionals can uncover what has not been reported without creating claims where none may exist.
2. Don’t wait for the direct complaint.
The victims of harassment frequently are embarassed or feel unwarranted shame. Some women won’t vocalize their discomfort but instead avoid the harasser or become uncomfortable when his name is mentioned. Observe closely for, and listen carefully to, signals that something may be wrong.
There won’t always be signals. But where there are warning signs, think about how to offer your help in a way that respects the recipient and does not create an issue where there may not be one. This can and has been done successfully.
3. Create additional reporting vehicles.
Fear of retaliation is a great inhibitor of timely reporting. So you may want to take a look at your company’s policies and at least consider having a procedure by which employees can report complaints externally, even anonymously.
Not every complaint is true and that applies to anonymous complaints, too. But every complaint should be taken seriously, and I have been involved in matters where the ability to report externally and anonymously has led to the facts that resulted in the unmasking of a serial harasser. So consider the option.
4. Hold other leaders accountable.
Harassers sometimes generate big bucks and that is why individuals sometimes cover up for, and even truckle up to, them. You need to cross their bridge to get meaningful work and the money that goes with it. Make clear to other leaders that you expect them not only to refrain from harassing behavior (severe or subtle) but also to report to a designated person or entity complaints or potential problems which they see, hear or of which they otherwise become aware. Ostriches don’t make good leaders.
As with all expectations, reward those who live up to them and punish those who don’t. Your organization is only as strong as its reputation and it can be destroyed if leaders are passive bystanders.
5. Model what you expect.
Most of all, men in power need to be good role models. There is nothing cool about demeaning women. The abuse is both powerful and pathetic. There is no defense to the indefensible. Sexual addiction is no more a defense to harassment than alcoholism is to driving drunk.
Speaking of alcohol, it is a major risk factor. Some cultures celebrate alcohol and such alcohol-centric cultures take away any slim inhibitors that otherwise might exist. Bottom line: it’s on men. Any questions, pal?
This column was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on 10/20/17.