The Women’s March, Golden Globes, and #MeToo/#TimesUp movements have raised a lot of questions about harassment issues in the workplace. The Atlanta Business Chronicle recently contacted partner Erin Easley earlier this month for information and advice on how Atlanta businesses can effectively address and prevent sexual harassment.
The article, published January 20, 2018, can be found here. Erin’s complete responses to all of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s questions are below.
In light of the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations against prominent men in various industries, how are harassment issues and policies playing out in legal departments in corporations in metro Atlanta?
Neither my legal practice nor the companies I represent have seen a change or increase in sexual harassment issues or allegations over the past year. Even so, the businesses I represent have become more aware of and sensitive to potential sexual harassment in the workplace, though their specific responses vary based on their size, industry, business culture, and individual goals.
Some businesses have dedicated more time and attention monitoring employee communications to make sure they remain professional and educating employees about what is and is not acceptable in the workplace. This includes explaining that even some non-sexual comments can be inappropriate in an office setting. For example, texting an employee late at night with an invitation to go out for a drink may be inappropriate even though it is not necessarily sexual.
Other companies are also adopting new policies aimed at preventing situations that could give rise to sexual harassment allegations or inappropriate interactions. One of the companies I represent started a new policy within the last year for employee performance or disciplinary reviews. Under the new policy, the supervisor cannot conduct the review without another authorized staff member present in the room. If an authorized staff member is not available, then the supervisor may make an audio recording of the meeting after obtaining the employee’s consent or postpone the meeting until a witness is available.
What are in-house counsel seeing within their businesses as far as heightened awareness, trainings, discussions, concerns from bosses?
Business owners are becoming more guarded in their communications because they are worried what might happen if an employee takes a comment out of context or interprets it the wrong way. Some companies are considering or have shut down their social media sites due to this concern. One of my clients has noticed that office communications have generally become more formal, with text messages being used less frequently to discuss work-related matters. I have also heard some bosses are concerned employees may create false claims hoping that the current publicity surrounding sexual harassment will scare employers into offering larger or faster settlements to avoid negative press. Of course, this fear will also push employers to adopt additional safeguards to prevent and promptly stop sexual harassment, thus providing additional protections to employees.
What are you advising company leaders and department heads as far as how to proceed in this day when people are more sensitive and more aware of the devastation of harassment?
I tell my clients that when it comes to protecting employees from sexual harassment, two of the most important tools available to businesses are (1) written anti-harassment and reporting policies and procedures and (2) well trained supervisors and managers enforcing those policies. While both tools are important, proper training is particularly important in the current social climate.
Now is the time for companies to ensure that any supervisor or manager is fully trained on how to identify and stop sexually harassing behavior and how to handle reports of sexual harassment. Because sexual harassment is such an intimately intrusive act, the training should include appropriate ways to discuss the events with the alleged victim. Likewise, because being accused of sexual harassment casts a disparaging, and potentially permanent, mark on the alleged harasser, companies must confidentially investigate reports of sexual harassment.
A company’s policies and training should highlight that sexual harassment comes in many forms – it is not simply quid pro quo or Mad Men-like interactions. Sexual harassment can include a workplace that tolerates crude jokes or sexual innuendo. Sexual harassment can even include harassing behavior by someone other than a coworker, such as a customer or vendor. Businesses should also be particularly mindful of employees who may be more susceptible to harassment and unlikely to report it, such as employees with intellectual disabilities.
Regardless of the form or individual affected, businesses must make it clear that they will not tolerate sexual harassment.
Do you have formal policies?
Yes. All businesses should have written anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures. These policies help both the employee and the employer: the employee is protected from unwanted sexual harassment and given tools to stop the harassment if it occurs, and the employer should become aware of and able to quickly correct any harassment. Formal policies can also give employers additional defenses if a lawsuit is filed.
What are things like in more male-dominated industries in regards to dealing with harassment training/awareness?
In my experience, the male-dominated industries are dealing with harassment training and awareness similarly to companies in non-male dominated industries. Even employers in traditionally male-dominated industries seem to have gotten the message that “time’s up.” They know they are not exempt from harassment claims and are responding.