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The #MeToo Movement and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Christine Batten, PHR
by Christine Batten, PHR on January 18, 2018

sexual harassment in the workplaceThe #MeToo movement, a campaign against sexual harassment and assault, is making headlines across the country. Women from all walks of life are using the hashtag to stand against those who have wronged them with unwelcome sexual advances on the job. They’re also using social media as a platform to show solidarity with other women who’ve encountered the same type of hostile or offensive work environment.

HR managers have long been aware of the power of social media, but this movement is uncharted territory. What should employers do if they see this post from one of their employees? Is it better to speak up or lie low? Should I use the word harassment? Here are four HR Tips on the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace.

HR Tips on the #MeToo Movement and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

  1. Consult the Employee

Although the conversation might be awkward, employers should consult with an employee who posts #MeToo to discuss the circumstances further. Treat a social media post with this message the same way you would any other allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace. Work through your company’s standard investigative process to uncover the facts.

The process should include conversations with the affected employee, the alleged harasser and others who may be witnesses. Employers shouldn’t be the one to use the word harassment unless one of those being interviewed mentions it. Reassure all employees that HR wants everyone to be comfortable and to maintain a professional setting at all times. If an employer is able to address an employee’s concern before it escalates, this could also save employers a great deal of money in legal fees.

HR’s conversations with those who share #MeToo posts can help restore trust amongst employees and their managers and reinforce zero-tolerance harassment policies. It’s important for HR to be proactive in this regard, attend harassment prevention training, provide training to employees and keep up with current events related to this and other HR-related headlines.

If the employee who made the post says either it wasn’t applicable to this situation or they don’t want to file a complaint, then at least you will have record of the conversation. It’s important in these moments to remind employees that you can’t stop inappropriate behavior if you don’t know it’s happening.

  1. Conduct Sexual Harassment Training

Make sure you and your staff (employees and managers) are aware of the definition of sexual harassment as well as reporting and investigating procedures.

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination. It’s defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Both state and federal laws prohibit discrimination and harassment based on a job applicant or employee’s sex (gender or pregnancy).

There are two recognized types of sexual harassment under state and federal law:

  • Quid pro quo: Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment. Example: If you don’t sleep with me, you’ll be fired.
  • Hostile work environment: The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Here are some examples of what could be considered sexual harassment in the workplace if it is unwelcomed and occurs on a severe and pervasive basis:

  • Sexual innuendoes and comments
  • Sexually suggestive sounds or gestures
  • Repeatedly asking a person out for dates
  • Ogling or leering, staring at someone
  • Rating a person’s looks or sexuality

The courts are more likely to find an illegal, hostile work environment where there is:

  • Pornography
  • Sexual jokes
  • Touching
  • Degrading comments
  • Embarrassing questions
  1. Have Concise Reporting Procedures

When you establish reporting procedures, it’s critical to give employees at least two reporting options so they don’t get stuck having to report to the supervisor they believe is harassing them.

When you talk reporting policies with your staff, let them know:

  • It’s okay to file a complaint
  • Filing a complaint will not negatively affect their job status, pay or title
  • Immediately report retaliation

Both Federal and state laws prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who oppose discriminatory employment practices - for example, by reporting incidents of sexual harassment to their supervisor.

  1. Investigate Complaints Thoroughly and Remediate the Situation

Employees take notice of what you do, not just what you say you’ll do. That’s why it’s imperative to take definitive action when a sexual harassment case is confirmed. As with any other employee relations issue, follow your corrective action policy and document the process so the issues are clear for future reference. 

When you receive a harassment complaint, complete the following tasks:

  • Let your employee(s) know you take the issue seriously
  • Take immediate steps to prevent any further harassment
  • Investigate without delay and with fairness
  • Keep it confidential (but do interview witnesses)
  • Document (keep in confidential file, not personnel file)

Part of the reason HR managers aren’t sure how to navigate the #MeToo movement is because of just how public it has become. When employees file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), much of the processing and even the settlement happens behind the scenes. But, when social media is used, people of power are called on the carpet and even sometimes fired so that companies can protect their workforce. It happens in front of everyone and the results are instantaneous.

Do you have additional questions about how to protect yourself and your employees? Be sure to check out our recent webinar on sexual harassment in the workplace

Partnering with FrankCrum grants you access to a team of HR experts. If you have questions about any HR-related issues, call 1-866-697-6576.

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Christine Batten, PHR
Christine Batten, PHR

Christine has over 20 years of HR related experience with a background in labor and employment law.