THE MAGAZINE

Preventing Harassment

By John M. Bagyi and Matthew G. Boyd

By now, every company should recognize the importance of preventing workplace harassment. The statistics show, however, that despite some progress, the problem persists. With regard to sexual harassment, the trend is that fewer charges are being filed. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) dropped every year, from 15,475 in 2001 to 12,025 in 2006—a 22 percent decline. But the trend for harassment overall is in the opposite direction. The number of harassment charges filed with the EEOC in 2007 hit 27,000—greater than in any of the previous 10 years.

By understanding workplace harassment, how to prevent it, and how to respond when a complaint arises, companies can significantly reduce the chances of being sued.Many companies have yet to get the message that failing to develop and enforce a harassment prevention policy can be costly. In 2007, companies paid more than $65 million in prelitigation EEOC settlements alone. As for what it can cost per company, consider these two examples.

In the first, a fast food restaurant franchisee with locations in Arizona and California paid $550,000 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of teenage workers alleging sexual harassment by a middle-aged male supervisor. The EEOC had argued that the employer knew of the manager’s conduct, which included unwanted touching and lewd comments, but failed to take appropriate action.

In the second case, a Chi-cago trucking company paid $1.1 million in damages arising from charges of sexual harassment. That situation involved three female sales representatives who were subjected to unwelcome groping, lewd sexual language, sexual propositions, and pornography. At trial, the EEOC presented evidence of the company’s permissive corporate culture. Strippers in revealing attire were positioned around the golf course at a company-sponsored golf outing for customers, for example.

Every organization needs a policy for minimizing exposure to this type of legal charge. By understanding what constitutes workplace harassment, how to prevent it, and how to respond when a complaint arises, companies can significantly reduce the chances of being charged or of incurring liability when allegations are brought.

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