Sexual Harassment: The Final Frontier of Workplace Gender Equality

gorilla1The 800-pound gorilla in the office is (likely) wearing a suit and tie.

Equal pay is dominating the headlines of late, with both California and New York acting to close the stubborn 20% wage gap between men and women.  Whereas women earned about $.62 for every dollar a man earned in 1963 (when the federal Equal Pay Act was passed), they earned about $.79 for every dollar in 2014, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

While there has been real progress on equal pay at the state level, there’s another battle to be fought over gender equality that few states or regulatory agencies have addressed. Sexual harassment is a persistent nemesis for employers and – not surprisingly – it hurts women more than men by a long shot.

About 33% of all women experience some form of sexual harassment at work, compared to only 9% of men according to the Catalyst Knowledge Center. Overall, about 80% of sexual harassment victims at work are women according to AWARE (the Association of Women for Action and Research). To make matters alarming for HR professionals, about 70% of sexual harassment victims choose not to report it.  And that’s after Anita Hill kicked the door down.

Sexual harassment is not easily identifiable by a pay stub comparison or examination of job descriptions. It’s something that often lurks under the surface or exists only in private conversations or interactions. You may catch it with surveillance or Internet usage monitoring if you’re lucky, but in any case, it’s a true headache for employers and a major drain on profitability for businesses.

Thankfully, the hands of HR professionals are not completely tied. They have a weapon to use in this battle: internal investigation.

To be clear, there are times when companies are legally required to conduct sexual harassment investigations, making this an obligation more than a tool. But in many cases, investigations occur too late in the life of a harassment cycle, rendering the investigation wasteful and ineffective. Then you have to call the lawyers in and that usually means calling the CFO, too.

The solution to this persistent and costly problem is twofold: prevention training and early intervention in the form of an investigation. Only three states require sexual harassment prevention training for employers, but truly, every business owner should consider training as both education and a form of insurance against future sexual harassment claims. After all, employers that are proactive in training employees on sexual harassment will have much more solid footing in court if they are accused of permitting a hostile work environment to exist.

As for investigations, HR professionals have tremendous discretion and flexibility in their decision-making. They are the eyes and ears of a company. They are the first line of defense. They are not obligated to wait for formal reports of sexual harassment to investigate, nor are they obligated to be 100% correct in their assessment of a situation. They are obligated to act in good faith and to be thorough when investigating, however, and that means several things:

  • Consider an internal investigation policy to inform employees of their rights and responsibilities during investigations;
  • Take action to stop the apparent or reported harassment before commencing a formal investigation by separating the involved employees;
  • Make sure employees understand the consequences of retaliation;
  • Consider reasonable and limited restrictions on employee activity during investigations to protect vital evidence;
  • Collect, analyze and protect the information obtained; and
  • Make a good faith decision based on the evidence available.

Ultimately, investigating a claim or suspected sexual harassment will be one of the more challenging things an HR professional encounters in his or her career.  However, it’s a vital component of running a business in the 21st century. With the gender pay gap on its way out, it also represents one of the last bastions of gender inequality in the workplace.

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