Workplace Harassment: Media Hype or a Call to Action?

Are the news stories about workplace harassment nothing but click-bait? Or are they a call to action for employers? Some numbers provide the answer:

  • $8,623,385
  • $2,500,000
  • $1,149,000
  • $695,208
  • $362,895
  • $325,000

These figures represent a sampling of jury awards against employers in sexual harassment cases over the past four years. The numbers are staggering and demonstrate workplace harassment is not media hype. It is an issue that could ruin your business.

Smart employers will use this moment of media attention to make sure all their employees know they should expect a harassment-free work environment and whom they must tell if they experience otherwise. Both are critical as the media focus on workplace harassment will likely lead to an increase in harassment claims in the near future. The news stories likely also mean you have curious employees wanting to know what they should do if they experience or witness harassment in your organization.

Educating employees on these issues is not only critical to preserving certain defenses to harassment claims, it is imperative to retain and attract a talented workforce. If employees do not feel empowered to speak up early about harassment, management may not know about any issues until the affected employees leave and/or bring employment claims. Both outcomes are costly. To embrace a harassment free work environment and avoid expensive departures or claims, employers should consider:

  • Implementing an easy to understand anti-harassment policy that includes, among other things, more than one person to whom employees can report harassment to so employees are never in the position of having to report harassment to the harasser.
  • Regularly training all employees on the anti-harassment policy and procedures.
  • Promptly responding to all harassment claims in a manner intended to end harassment and not just to check a box that a complaint was investigated.
  • Taking corrective steps to end any instances of harassment and disciplining any harasser.
  • Ensuring anyone who complains about harassment in good faith is not retaliated against.

Employers that embrace the opportunity the media attention to workplace harassment provides can strengthen the bond with their employees and minimize the economic risk of harassment claims. Conversely, employer silence amidst the media firestorm could cause employees to question whether they should bring instances of harassment to light or remain silent. As the recent workplace harassment stories demonstrate, a culture of silence can empower harassers and lead to disastrous consequences.

Michael Neary is an employment attorney who helps employers prevent and defend against harassment claims. For help with your anti-harassment policy, or to discuss anti-harassment training, contact Michael at [email protected] or 301-657-0740.