Documents show that hundreds of employees of Kay Jewelers' parent company have alleged that management fostered a culture of sexual harassment.

Documents show that hundreds of employees of Kay Jewelers' parent company have alleged that management fostered a culture of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a silent epidemic with an incredible reach. Recent allegations in tech, media and even the jewelry industry have brought it to the forefront once again. We’ll go beyond awkward training videos and discuss the real life effects of harassment on the job, how people are trying to combat it and why it’s still happening.

Guests

  • Debra Katz Founding partner, Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP
  • Jessica Raven Executive Director, Collective Action for Safe Spaces.
  • Fran Sepler President of Sepler & Associates, a human resources consulting firm. She's author of "Finding the Facts: What Every Workplace Investigator Needs to Know"
  • Jackson Katz Co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, an influential gender violence prevention program. Now runs MVP Strategies, which provides gender violence prevention/leadership training. He's author of "The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and and How All Men Can Help"

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Your Questions Answered

Debra Katz is an attorney specializing in sexual harassment cases.

We received so many questions during our discussion, we invited one of our guests back to answer some of the most common ones, or those we didn’t have time to answer during the live show. Debra Katz is an attorney specializing in sexual harassment cases. Here, she answers some listener questions we received on Twitter, Facebook, by email and in the comments section:

When I hear male co-workers make comments that sexualize and harass my female co-workers, I speak out. However, this seems to have very little impact. What methods I could use to help fight against this?

First, speaking out is a brave and important act when witnessing harassment of others. Even if your intervention doesn’t seem to make an immediate change in the harasser’s behavior, it sends the message that harassment is not acceptable and over time that message can have a real impact. Title VII, which covers employers with 15 employees or more, prohibits both sex discrimination and retaliation against employees who oppose discrimination and sexual harassment. Under the law, opposition includes things like accompanying a co-worker who is making a report, or filing a report of your own about what you’ve witnessed. Many states have laws, which cover small employers with less than 15 employees, also have laws that protect workers who speak out against discrimination and sexual harassment.

I’ve learned there are rumors swirling about my sexual orientation amongst the staff. Several staff members have made jokes about my sexuality to my face. Is this a form of sexual harassment? 

There are really two questions here: (1) whether the rumors and jokes constitute harassment; and (2) whether targeting you because of your sexual orientation is a prohibited form of harassment.  If the jokes are pervasive enough to make you feel uncomfortable, the answer to the first question may be yes.  As for the second question, you should look at your employer’s policy, which may prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. Also, you are generally not legally protected in bringing a lawsuit challenging harassment unless you have complained about it to your employer. If you would like legal advice about whether you have a claim for sexual harassment, you can search for attorneys near you through the NELA website.

Is it okay to respectfully ask a coworker out on a date?  

In terms of sexual harassment law, the answer is probably yes. Assuming that a “respectful” invitation to a date means a question that is asked once, without any coercion, and without any suggestion that the individual’s employment will be affected by his or her answer, asking a co-worker out would not, alone, constitute harassment. As the EEOC explains, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Keep in mind that your workplace might have rules about dating co-workers that it has the right to enforce.

Can you talk about how sexual harassment plays a part in the work force, where part of a women’s role is to be “sexual” such as Hooters?

Although many establishments claim their brand requires that provocatively dressed women work as servers and hostesses, these hiring practices do not indemnify them from sexual harassment complaints.  Customers, co-workers and supervisors frequently harass women who work in such jobs, but the employer will be liable if it does not take strong measures to prevent and remedy such harassment by sending a clear message that it will not be tolerated. Hooters, for example has frequently been sued for sexual harassment, and has adopted traditional policies prohibiting sexual harassment.  It now requires annual training of its managers, and has an internal complaint procedure. 

I dealt with sexual harassment from a male and female employer. Advice on dealing with both differently?

Any harassment that is based on your sex is sexual harassment, regardless of the sex of the harasser or whether the harassment is motivated by sexual interest, gender hostility or bias, or other factors. If you are being targeted for harassment based on your sex, you should report the conduct according to the harassment policy of your workplace unless you have a reasonable good faith basis for fearing retaliation.  Employers with 15 or more full-time employees are covered by Title VII.  Many state or local laws have a lower threshold for coverage and carry greater damages. If the harassment is not addressed, seek legal advice about your options.

When will folks talk about how transgender people are victimized at similar/higher rates than cis women?

The civil rights legal community is very aware of the higher risk of discrimination that transgender individuals face in the workplace. In the past few years, the EEOC has identified protecting these transgendered individuals as a priority for enforcement and has made clear that it interprets Title VII to prohibit discrimination on the basis of transgender identity. Federal courts have been slower to extend protections in this area, but the general trend of the law has been towards including transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, which triggers the protections and remedies of Title VII (and some state laws).

What should an employer do when an accusation is made when no evidence exists to support it?

Employers have an obligation to investigate sexual harassment, but are not required to make any determination that is unsupported by evidence.  In cases where no such evidence exists, the employer should be transparent and direct about the basis for its determination, and should clearly set out its harassment policy and standards to both the alleged target and alleged harasser.  Not all unwelcome conduct meets the legal standard for sexual harassment, but all complaints present the opportunity to review policies and practices to ensure that the reporting system is working.  In the rare case, frivolous or malicious complaints can get lodged against employees for sexual harassment.  If an employer determines that the complaint was brought in bad-faith or based on false evidence, it has the right to take disciplinary action against the individuals who lodged the false charges.  Again, this is the rare case. 

Any suggested responses for the males in the situation who know the harassment is wrong and want to act?

There are a number of paths to intervening when you witness harassment.  First, you can speak up to the harasser directly, if it is safe to do so. Intervention can play a major role in improving all social groups, both at work and beyond. Second, you can speak up in support of, or on behalf of, the target of harassment to management. Opposing harassment is protected activity under federal and state laws – this means that your employer cannot punish you if you report the harassment of a co-worker, or if you support a co-worker in making her own report.  Many companies have hot lines where these types of allegations can be reported anonymously. The EEOC has important information about bystander intervention in its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (June 2016).  

My sister mentioned to me that her male co-worker “picks on” her physical appearance quite often: telling her she needs a haircut, or commenting on her clothing choices. Is this sexual harassment?

Unlawful sexual harassment is defined by the EEOC as unwelcome conduct that is “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”  The harassment must be based on the person’s sex to qualify as illegal sex discrimination. Harassing an individual because she fails to conform to the harasser’s view of what a woman should look like or commenting negatively about her appearance because she is not pretty enough or does not wear feminine enough attire may well rise to the level of sexual harassment.

General parting thoughts:

Many of your listeners raised questions about the prevalence of sexual harassment experienced by individuals in service/hospitality positions or in fields that are male dominated or by age and/or race.  A really rich source of these type of statistics can be found in testimony Fatima Goss Graves, CEO and President Elect of the National Women’s Law Center, gave to the EEOC in January of 2015.

As I mentioned on yesterday’s show, the National Women’s Law Center has good resources on its website to assist individuals who have been subjected to workplace sexual harassment.

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