Unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace, whether in the nature of a physical act or a verbal proposition, may constitute prohibited sexual harassment under the law. Employers may be liable for such conduct when it occurs in the workplace or at off-site work functions, and victims of sexual harassment may be entitled to damages. It is important for employers to have policies in place that not only work towards preventing such behavior from occurring, but also provide employees with an effective avenue for reporting sexual harassment if and when it transpires.
Sterling Class Action
One particularly egregious example of widespread sexual harassment within the workplace came to light when hundreds of women came forward with shocking accusations in a private class action case involving Sterling Jewelers, the parent company of Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers. In this case, hundreds of women have claimed that the chief executive and other company leaders within Sterling promoted a workplace environment in which sexual harassment and discrimination pervaded the entire company. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the unwanted sexual advances occurred at off-site, mandatory managers’ meetings. Former Sterling employees described these meetings as “sex-fests” where alcohol consumption was encouraged and female managers were aggressively pursued, grabbed, and harassed. One woman declared that male executives “prowled around the [resort] like dogs that were let out of their cage and there was no one to protect the female managers from them.” The victims further allege that the sexual pursuit was done in plain view and appeared to be encouraged, or at the very least condoned, by executives within the company. Other statements allege that top executives within the company promoted women based upon how they responded to sexual demands. This is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment.
In addition to the allegations mentioned above, many of the female victims have come forward with statements outlining the abuse they suffered and the lack of an effective avenue for reporting the same. Not only were these victims subjected to unwanted sexual advances, but when they reported the incidents, they faced verbal attacks and/or termination. One woman alleged that she was falsely accused of theft and quickly fired after she had reported to her superiors at Sterling that an older district manager had attempted to kiss and touch her at a manager’s event. Another woman has come forward alleging that her male district manager had promised to facilitate her transfer to another store if she engaged in sexual relations with him. She relayed that she felt as though she was “backed into a corner” and that she had to engage if she wanted to advance in her career. Another victim alleged in a statement that the company did not have effective mechanisms in place by which female employees could report the mistreatment they endured.
While these numerous allegations have yet to be proven, the unsettling events described above are certainly not unique to one company. Sexual harassment within the workplace remains prevalent throughout the country and occurs more often than one might think. Social science research indicates that victims of sexual harassment commonly do not report the abuse they faced. This may be due to the fact that victims are not sure whether the behavior they were subjected to constitutes sexual harassment, or perhaps they fear that their supervisors will not believe their reports. Some victims likely fear retaliation in the event that they do report the harassment. And all too often, the employer’s response to complaints that are made is to “circle the wagons” to defend itself against the allegations. In light of this, both employers and employees should carefully consider their rights and obligations when sexual harassment claims or the potential for the same arise.
Tips for Employers
It is important for employers to have effective policies in place to ensure that victims of sexual harassment are able to report such events with the assurance that the problem will be appropriately handled. However, the process does not end there. Employers should also: have multiple designated employees throughout the company who are authorized to receive such complaints; conduct a confidential, objective, and fair investigation as early as reasonably possible; regularly educate employees about sexual harassment; take steps to protect the claimed victim of harassment from future harassment or retaliation; and, if warranted, apply discipline fairly, swiftly, and consistent with company policies and practices.
When it comes to off-site mandatory meetings such as those at issue in the Sterling case, employers should have zero tolerance policies to ensure that their employees’ behavior remains appropriate and professional while attending such events. Employers should have policies in place prohibiting alcohol consumption during work-related, off-campus meetings, and should remind employees that work-related meetings are still “work,” and that appropriate workplace behavior is still required. Employers should assure employees that they are not required to socialize at bars or other locations after the work meetings have ended, and that they are free to leave an after-hours event at any time. Employees should not be discriminated against (e.g., denied opportunities) or made to feel like they are being discriminated against if they do not participate in after work activities.
Tips for Employees
Employees who are subjected to unwelcome sexual advances should first consider speaking about the occurrence with the person making the sexual advances. The law prohibits only “unwelcome” sexual advances, and a gentle but firm expression of your lack of interest may be all that is needed to deter the behavior. If the offensive conduct does not stop at that stage, or if retaliated against, then employees should report the instance to a supervisor or someone within the company who is designated to receive such complaints. Along the same lines, employees should follow any procedures the company has in place for dealing with sexual harassment. It is usually a good idea for employees to keep a record of any occurrences of the harassment, including the responsible party, the dates, times, witnesses, if any, and the nature of the offense. And when it comes to off-site work meetings, it bears remembering that you are still “at work,” even if the work takes you to Vegas.
For a confidential analysis of your employment issues, or questions about TRC’s Employment/Labor practice area, please contact Jerry Hogenmiller, Esquire at (412) 316-8689 or [email protected].
Important Notice: This information is intended for general guidance only, and should not be used as a substitute for specific legal advice. For specific legal advice applicable to your situation, you should consult an attorney of your choice. Although believed to be accurate when written, no guarantee of completeness or accuracy to your particular circumstances should be implied. Laws, regulations, and court decisions in this area change frequently, and you should consult the attorney of your choice for up-to-date information.