Article

A Touchy Subject

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2008

Workplace sexual harassment “can cause disruptions in morale and undermine the entire organization,” says Gilbert Singer, vice president and commissioner of the Florida Commission on Human Relations. “It can also hit the wallet big time.”

Two harassment cases filed by three Manatee Wal-Mart employees in 2004 and 2005 cost the retailer $315,000. In the first, a department manager exposed himself, grabbed and fondled women, and requested sex. In the second, an assistant manager propositioned and touched a female employee.

Both cases represent the common perception that sexual harassment is perpetrated by male supervisors who hold power over female employees. But harassment isn’t always as obvious as transgressions of the Wal-Mart employees.

“It’s not always women complaining about men’s behavior. It defies stereotypes,” says Singer. In the six years since he was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the commission, Singer, a Tampa lawyer, says he has also learned that even posters on the walls and the undesired love letter can fall within the spectrum.

In Florida, 908 charges of harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2007, up from 821 complaints in 2006.  “There’s a steady climb in cases,” Singer says.

Employers shouldn’t wait until conflicts arise. “The best way for the employer to cope is to be proactive. Have a sexual harassment policy in writing in a manual, regular training on policy and an internal grievance policy,” says Singer.  “Staff needs to be encouraged to report inappropriate behavior. Management needs to lead by example.”

The Florida Commission on Human Relations has developed online videos to educate both employers and public. They can be viewed at http://fchr.state.fl.us/outreach/sexual_harassment.

Most employers rely on their human resource directors or employment lawyers to draft policies unique to their companies, says Singer. 

What Employers Should Know:

1. Businesses must be proactive. The most important thing an employer or manager can do is to plan in advance by adopting internal anti-harassment policies and making sure all employees and managers follow them. Employees should be trained on a regular basis, and management should send a strong message to staff that harassment will not be tolerated. No amount of training can ever be “too much.”

2. Groping is not the only type of sexual harassment. In addition to physical contact, sexual harassment can fall under three other categories: verbal (discussing sexual activities, propositioning, using foul language, telling crude jokes); visual (obscene gestures, catcalls, whistling) and written (pornography, sexually explicit pictures, sexist signs).

3. Customers and clients also are included. Employees have the right to make a sexual harassment complaint involving customers and clients. Furthermore, employers and managers have a responsibility to handle these complaints by speaking to the harasser and telling them their behavior will not be tolerated. 

4. Sexual harassment does not have a “face.” Last year, 16 percent of cases filed with the EEOC were from male victims of sexual harassment. Harassment can occur between members of the same sex, and coworkers without any “power” over the victim can be harassers.

5. Employees cannot be punished for speaking out. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment. Whether you are being harassed or are only an observer, you have a right to tell a supervisor about inappropriate behavior without fear of punishment.
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