With harassment in the news, companies seek education.
A spate of news reports about high-profile sexual harassment cases has resulted in a flood of inquiries to lawyers and HR specialists from corporate leaders who are looking for ways to avoid such cases in their own companies. Im getting lots and lots of calls from employers who are worried about harassment claims and are looking for training and guidance on how to avoid these types of claims, said attorney John Ashby, who works in employment law at Hawley Troxell. There certainly has been a big shift as far as what were seeing. There is a lot more curiosity today about what is harassment and what isnt, and how does the law actually deal with that. There is a lot more attention to that, said Boise employment lawyer Bill Mauk, who has been litigating such cases for 40 years. Mauk, who foundedMauk Miller, PLLC, added that the sudden attention to harassment cases doesnt seem to be resulting in more legal action. I am not seeing a flood of women who are coming forward suddenly and asking about sexual harassment or wanting to pursue sexual harassment complaints, said Mauk. Sexual harassment at work has been illegal since the U.S. Supreme Court held in 196 that such behavior constituted sex discrimination in employment. Even at relatively low-profile workplaces in Idaho, sexual harassment cases can also result in financial loss. In a recent case, the Idaho Controllers Office paid $3,000 to settle a harassment claim after a worker sued the office in September over another employee's behavior. And the cost goes beyond money. With a tight labor market, employers are looking for ways to make their workplaces extra-attractive to prospective hires. Ensuring the rules on harassment are followed is one way to do that. Ashby recommends that companies conduct training sessions with managers every few years on maintaining a respectful workplace. State Legislatures, including Idaho's, have recently carried out such sessions. Private employers are doing the same. Ive gotten a lot of calls to go out and do training at companies here around town, Ashby said. Its mostly directed at making sure that anytime an employee raises concerns about harassment, that whoever hears about it makes sure that HR or the higher-up management in the company learn about it, and that theyre able to address it." For companies with employees in dispersed locations, on-line training sessions can be effective. An effective training covers not only compliance and the law, but also civility, said Patti Perkins, who has also seen an increase in requests for training at her Eagle HR consulting firm, Calyx-Weaver & Associates. "We talk about being respectful, about bullying behavior, the impact on people, productivity, culture, etc.," Perkins said. "I often like to introduce people to the concept of emotional intelligence -- which is really the key to managing one's behaviors. Reporting bad behavior is one way to address it, but it would be better if it never occurred at all, even if technically 'legal.'" Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the statute that covers sexual harassment, applies to employers with 15 or more workers. Larger companies are more likely to have procedures in place that will help managers avoid missteps. Weve been around for 30-plus years and have an entire corporate office with a legal team backing us up, so we do stay pretty up to date on procedures for hiring and managing staff, said Sara Barnowski, a business developer at Express Temps, which has seven offices in Idaho and 00 in the U.S., Canada and South Africa. I would not feel as safe working for a staffing company that didnt have the teams we do informing us all the time, Barnowski said. Training isnt just for managers, Ashby noted. In some companies every couple of years they get all the employees together and review the companys policies about harassment in the workplace or discrimination, to remind employees that the company prohibits discrimination or harassment, he said. And they remind employees where to go if they experience conduct that violates those policies. Most companies also have a handbook that specifically prohibits any type of harassment based on gender or race or age or other protected classifications. They usually prohibit harassment not just from a manager but from any type of a co-worker. So employees know that even if its just a co-worker saying something inappropriate, they should report it, Ashby said. While the rules around harassment and discrimination havent changed much in recent years, employees seem more willing than in the past to raise concerns, Ashby said. And I think for the most part companies are taking it much more seriously, he said. Companies have learned over time that if you dont take care of this stuff, it can lead to serious problems, Mauk said. And my view is that at least the companies I have worked with here in Idaho, they want to do the right thing; they dont want to have any illegal harassment or discrimination going on in the workplace.
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