Sexual Harassment at Work - What You Need to Know in 2018

Courier Magazine recently interviewed Michelle D. Craig, managing partner of Transcendent Law Group, about sexual harassment in the workplace. In January, Craig helmed the CLDA webinar “Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints in the Transportation Industry.”

Courier Magazine: Explain how the definition of “sexual harassment in the workplace” has changed
over the years.

Michelle D. Craig: Sexual harassment in the workplace has been occurring since the integration of women into the workforce. While Title VII, passed in 1964, prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace, the behavior wasn’t given a label until the 1970s. Despite the designation, sexual harassment was happening, but claims were certainly not being given the attention they deserved.

Currently, the EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that interferes with one’s employment.

In the past, however right or wrong, employers generally associated the term “sexual harassment
in the workplace” with severe conduct, like assault, rape or physical touching. However, the term includes lewd or suggestive comments, gestures, and the like. Although there were laws on the books, many employers still viewed sexual harassment in the workplace as a personal issue that just happened to occur at work. While they had the policies in place and HR had the directive to handle it, most companies were not as concerned as they should have been about addressing these claims.
The #MeToo movement and the substantial increase in the number of reported sexual harassment
claims has caused more employers to pay attention. I think the movement also made it personal to
men. The women in the lives of men who were in charge of organizations, departments or groups who may otherwise have not taken it seriously started talking about what they experienced. I think hearing that their wives, girlfriends, friends, daughters and loved ones were being subjected to behavior that they themselves may have engaged in caused many men to begin to question why they shouldn’t hold themselves and their peers more accountable for their behavior. I honestly think this led to the shift that we are currently seeing take place.

CM: How can a company, specifically in the delivery industry, implement sexual harassment policies that will be followed and are up to current “legal code”?

MC: The keys to a good sexual harassment policy are:

  • Proper notice about the policy in the handbook
  • Proper definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment in the policies and/or handbook
  • Proper training
  • A proper and clear reporting structure for reporting harassment
  • Prompt investigations and action when a complaint occurs Sexual harassment policies should be clear about the types of actions that can constitute sexual harassment. It is important that the policy be written. It should also be reviewed by a lawyer.

Also, for the courier industry, it is important that the training focus on the types of sexual harassment that occurs most often in the industry. For instance, unwanted, lingering touches while handing over a package could be considered harassment by an employee or giving out an undesirable route to an employee who refuses sexual advances could be considered sexual harassment. Educating employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, investigating it and appropriately reprimanding the aggressor can resolve most of these issues.

It is also crucial to take every complaint seriously and investigate it thoroughly. Sexual harassment complaints are sometimes ignored or not given full consideration. This happens at all types of companies, trucking companies, courier companies, at warehouses and delivery locations, and others. Companies have now realized that they are legally bound to not only address the complaints, but to investigate and take measures to immediately stop the behavior.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sexual harassment in the workplace, at its core, is gender-based discrimination. So making an effort to hire a more diverse group in the C-suite positions to consistently break that glass barrier and normalize an equality between men and women goes a long way in establishing a less contentious work environment. It also establishes an environment where such behavior is intolerable.

CM: In your experience, what are the things that people running companies do wrong when sexual harassment issues come up. How do these “wrong actions” cause PR problems? Is there a way to come back from this?

MC: They ignore the problem or the problematic employee and refuse to admit the issue. Many, many times the aggressor has been the aggressor more than once. The behavior just went unaddressed. If a company knows an employee engages in such behavior, but no one comes forward to stop them, this person may continue to act as an aggressor. Companies must handle the issue.
That is also true if an employee does make a complaint. Hiding the issue or hiding from the issue—such as ignoring complaints, not investigating them, not requiring training on the issue or not making policy changes to address them—only compounds the problem.

It’s better to address a sexual harassment complaint immediately than to create an even larger hostile work environment and even more liability for your company.

Not only it is unfair and bad for the employees, it can also become a public relations nightmare. The best thing to do is to acknowledge it and institute new policies that will serve to prevent future incidents. In the age of social media, companies now have the ability to be closely connected to the public. Utilizing this to speak directly to your customers—whether its via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—can help you convey the culture and beliefs of the company and help make it clear that your company does not tolerate behavior that degrades or harasses women or any employee.

CM: In your experience, have sexual harassment claims in the workplace become more frequent since the current #MeToo movement began?

MC: I don’t think they’ve become more frequent, rather more are being reported because victims are feeling more confident about speaking up. They are starting to feel like their complaints will be addressed which is a good thing. Prior to this movement, sexual harassment tended to be less reported because of many reasons: people didn’t think they would be taken seriously; they were afraid of being retaliated against and losing their jobs; they felt shame about the issue; and a whole host of other reasons. However, with the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment victims everywhere have a network of people who are supportive and that encourages them to speak up about harassment when it happens to them.

CM: Do you think that in the next few years sexual harassment in the workplace will eventually decline because people will become more educated on the subject?

MC: I certainly hope so. Shortly after the media reported on the multiple companies that tolerated sexual harassment over the years and the individuals that engaged in sexual harassing behavior for decades, it triggered a nationwide discussion. Discussions like those help change social norms. New social norms change behavior. Hopefully, we are entering an era of a new norm where people are more educated about what is acceptable and what is not. However, the issue will continue to evolve. Sexual harassment claims as it relates to homosexual and transgendered individuals are on the rise. The court system hasn’t fully caught up yet, but it will. Hopefully, by that time, the national conversation will be such that most people will understand what behavior is acceptable across the board and what behavior is not acceptable no matter the sex or gender of the person.

Ms. Craig can be reached at mcraig@tlg.law, 504-459-4557. www.transcenentlegal.com

This interview was slightly edited.

About the Author

Abbie Stutzer is the Editor of Courier Magazine.