Sexual Harassment is more than Innocent Fun

I am continually amazed when I read about sexual harassment that has been allowed to go beyond what most of us would consider reasonable bounds. Because we are “sexual creatures” by nature there is always going to be some small aspect of sex or attraction at play in the workplace. But one of the hallmarks of being human is our adaptability and thus our ability to abide by defined rules and patterns of behavior when they are established. The problem is some places don’t define these rules and don’t realize that sexual harassment is more than innocent fun.
All good HR people and well-trained managers know that there are two components to sexual harassment. The first is the notorious Quid Pro Quo version. This is what most people define as sexual harassment. Stereotypically this is the male boss requiring of a female subordinate some act of sex in order for her to keep her job, get a pay increase, avoid some job action, or some other job action. Just one incident is enough to claim sexual harassment. However, there is a second component of sexual harassment called hostile environment.
Hostile environment sexual harassment is the more pervasive, but at the same time is defined in the eye of the beholder. How I interpret something is important but just seeing it one time does not make for a case of sexual harassment. There has to be a pattern of behavior that creates this hostile environment. So a workplace where sexual innuendo, jokes, pictures, links to websites, etc. abound could be reasonably construed to potentially create a hostile environment to an employee, but not necessarily. If all parties involved don’t find it offensive then no harm. It certainly is not good HR practices to allow this, but until someone complains there is no foul. But when someone does complain then it needs to be taken care of to avoid the complaint escalating to a lawsuit.
This was not done in the case of a Wisconsin McDonald’s restaurant. In this situation “…several male employees subjected female co-workers to sexual harassment, including sexual comments, kissing, touching of their private areas and forcing their hands onto the men’s private parts.” Such behavior goes beyond the pale (see here for a definition of this English idiom) and women involved did complain to management. However, management failed in its duty to do anything (according to the EEOC) and then compounded the error by firing some of the women who complained. It is quite obvious that such behavior is not innocent horseplay and the failure to deal with it cost the company dearly.
The EEOC fined the company $1,000,000 and required that the company make substantial procedural and administrative changes, including:
(1)   create an ombudsperson position responsible for monitoring, soliciting and resolving complaints of sexual harassment or retaliation; (2) establish telephone and e-mail hotlines for employees to report sexual harassment or retaliation; (3) evaluate its managers’ and supervisors’ performance based in part on whether their restaurants comply with anti-harassment and anti-retaliation laws and policies; (4) track and maintain records of all sexual harassment and retaliation complaints; (5) implement a comprehensive training program to enable its employees to identify sexual harassment and properly investigate internal complaints; (6) post notices at all its restaurants informing employees that it has settled a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit with the EEOC and publicizing some settlement terms; and (7) provide periodic reports to the EEOC showing it is complying with the terms of the decree.
The lesson in this for everyone? Pay attention to complaints, investigate those complaints, take appropriate action where warranted and be aware of situations where hostile environment harassment could occur. Lastly, don’t retaliate against people who have filled complaints. Save yourself a big chunk of change by being proactive.
Source: SHRM article Owner of Wisconsin McDonald’s Restaurants to Pay $1 Million for Sexual Harassment (Available only to SHRM Members)

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