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Advice to prevent #MeToo in the workplace

Friday, March 16, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kristine Thomas
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Attorney David Briggs of Saalfeld Griggs PC began the presentation on “How to prevent #MeToo in the workplace” by showing a clip from the television show The Office, where Michael, the boss, displayed his appreciation for his employees’ work by slapping them on the behind. His defense was he was just doing what coaches do to their players.

After showing the clip, Briggs asked guests to raise their hands if they thought Michael's behavior would be considered sexual harassment.

About half of the 125 guests at the March 10 Strategic Economic Development Corporation Economic Forum Business lunch raised their hands.

They were incorrect.

Under the equal opportunity harassment defense, Briggs shared, what Michael did was not sexual harassment.

“Was his behavior appropriate, no,” Briggs said. “But it would not be defined as sexual harassment.”

Briggs along with attorney Luke Reese of Garrett Hemann Robertson PC and Suzi Alligood of Xenium shared with lunch guests what businesses can do to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and how to respond to allegations.  A vice president of people development and culture, Alligood assists employers manage the many sensitive issues triggered by a harassment report, both navigating legal risk and working to bring the entire work force together as they addresses and ultimately learn from these experiences.

There are basically two laws used to define sexual harassment, Briggs said.

“There is quid pro quo, the Latin term meaning ‘something for something,” Briggs said. An example of quid pro quo would be if an employer tells an employee that she must go on a date with him or she will be fired or won’t get a raise or promotion.

Briggs said most sexual harassment complaints stem from a hostile work environment, which is where the harasser’s conduct is so severe or pervasive so that it alters the terms and conditions under which the person works.  In other words, the harassment is so bad that the employee cannot do his or her job. 

When conduct becomes harassing can be a fine line.  One case Briggs mentioned involved a supervisor hugging a subordinate; others can involve an employee asking another out on dates.  To determine whether there is legal harassment or other appropriate conduct policies are violated, all of the circumstances need to be reviewed.

Alligood said the #MeToo movement has been around for more than 12 years, yet since the increased awareness of it last fall, she has clearly seen a rise in complaints.

“We have definitely done more training,” she said. “I think it’s an issue people are more mindful and sensitive about.”

Most people know the difference between right and wrong and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace, Alligood said. Both Briggs and Reese said if an employee shares with her employer her concerns about being sexually harassed, that the most important action an employer can take is to listen, take notes and commit to looking into the matter. The biggest mistake employers make is doing nothing, Reese said, adding that’s usually when a lawsuit gets filed. 

Reese said it is important employers are seen as being receptive to the employee.

“Employers need to listen to the complaint, look into it and address it,” Reese said, adding it’s vital employers document what they did and check in with the employee who complained at least every other month. 

All three said there are resources to assist companies if they have questions or need guidance.

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