In recent weeks, reports of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile individuals have emerged on an almost daily basis. From Hollywood A-listers, to politicians, to celebrity chefs, the list of powerful individuals accused of sexual harassment and assault continues to grow. As a result, the national conversation surrounding the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace shows no signs of abating.
This focus upon workplace harassment is not unprecedented. In 1991, Senate hearings related to Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court highlighted these issues after the testimony of Anita Hill. The impact on U.S. workplaces was unmistakable. In the years immediately following the Thomas hearings, the number of sexual harassment charges filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) more than doubled.
There should be no question that the recent media attention focused upon issues of workplace harassment will yield similar results. An increase in harassment charges and litigation, particularly those involving claims of sexual harassment, is inevitable.
Employers seeking to protect their employees from unlawful harassment and to avoid resultant liability should heed the clear warnings from recent, high-profile cases. Employers should immediately review and update their workplace policies relating to all forms of unlawful harassment. This includes ensuring that employees are provided a clear, effective, and accessible reporting mechanism for complaints of harassment. Employers should then re-promulgate their policies and take steps to meet with and educate their workforce about its provisions. Employers also should regularly train supervisors on how to prevent and appropriately respond to instances of workplace harassment.
Of course, upon receiving any complaints of harassment, employers must immediately conduct a thorough investigation and take appropriate remedial action based upon the results of the investigation. When dealing with a complaint of harassment, employers also must take steps to prevent any retaliation against the accuser or any of the participants in an investigation, regardless of whether the complaint is determined to be valid.
Finally, given the particular focus upon the relative power that an alleged harasser may hold over a victim of harassment, employers that have not already done so may want to re-think their policies and practices related to workplace relationships. Even consensual relationships where one employee is arguably subordinate to the other may present too much risk for all involved.