Sexual harassment has once again caught the spotlight with the recent eruption of sensational harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly. Perhaps the most scintillating of the allegations are those suggesting that he and Fox News had ample notice of the underlying problems, and that Fox News paid $12 million to settle claims brought by five different women against O’Reilly. Yet the problems continued for whatever reason, ultimately leading to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox last month.
We can question whether it was a breakdown in policy, practice, or both, that ultimately led to this catastrophic debacle. But one principle stands clear: the culture in workplaces plagued by sexual harassment problems must change. Policies and posters alone will not prevent or remedy harassment. Employers must broadcast the clear and consistent message that harassment will not be tolerated under any circumstance. This message must emanate from the top, with a realignment of attitudes at the highest levels of leadership, and amongst the most recognizable of faces within the organization. Only then can policies and practices truly withstand scrutiny and challenge.
The Duty to Prevent and Remedy Harassment
The starting point is recognizing an employer’s duty to maintain a workplace free from the perils of sexual harassment. Prevention is crucial; however, it is not the only answer, as courts and other legal authorities recognize that even with the most diligent of efforts, harassment may occasionally slip leadership’s watchful eye. In those cases, once harassment has surfaced, it must be quickly addressed and eradicated. This duality of prevention and remedy provide the two-pronged overarching responsibility facing all employers.
These duties include a bevy of related responsibilities, including the duty to properly train employees on the available avenues for reporting harassment, and guiding supervisors and managers in responding appropriately when concerns are raised. Providing a written policy is an absolute must to ensure consistent guidelines and expectations. Employers should secure qualified personnel – usually human resources professionals – to investigate and recommend proposed responses when harassment allegations are raised. Discipline, retraining, and redistribution of harassment policies are generally reasonable and appropriate responses when harassment occurs. And, employers must absolutely ensure that those who raise concerns of harassment may do so without fear of reprisals from management or co-workers. Hiring the best sexual harassment lawyer NYC is also essential in preventing and fighting sexual harassment at the workplace. They can guide you on strengthening your policies and represent your employees who were harassed by their fellow office mates.
The Employee’s Shared Duty
The duty to prevent and remedy harassment does not start and stop with management. It is a duty shared by the employer, the employees, and even the victims themselves. Courts widely recognize that employees must undertake their own efforts to avoid the harms of workplace sexual harassment. Remaining silent amidst the problem is rarely acceptable and may defeat an otherwise valid claim brought by an employee who suffers from workplace harassment. Employees should feel empowered to raise concerns. Employers can help foster this sense of responsibility and contribution through open channels of communication, understanding and support. Employers that routinely silence employee concerns face the greatest risk that their employees will suffer in silence until the seeds of harassment have grown into very public, and very expensive, claims and lawsuits.
Reaping the Rewards
Improved policy and practice, supported by leadership, will help to prevent harassment and, on the rare occasions when it occurs, remedy it quickly and effectively. While the end of workplace sexual harassment is reason enough to invest in change, it bestows further benefit. Greater efficiencies and productivity, decreased expenditures on legal fees and settlements, enhanced relationships with employees, and protected public reputations serve as examples of what employers can expect with even minimal attention to improving sexual harassment policies and practices. At the very least, renewed focus on the problem and the measures needed to fix it can avoid the next sexual harassment scandal.