Given the recent headlines, all employers should be reminded that they have a legal duty to maintain a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment suits are prosecuted under the same federal and state laws that are used to sue employers for racial discrimination and harassment, so it is critical that every employer take this form of sexual discrimination seriously. As we have seen, employers have paid a high price for failing to address sexual harassment complaints adequately.

What is sexual harassment?

The New York State Division of Human Rights defines sexual harassment as a “hostile environment” consisting of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation, or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex. This will also consist of any unwanted verbal or physical advances which are offensive or objectionable to the recipient.

Another type of sexual harassment is known as “quid pro quo,” where a person in authority, such as a supervisor, attempts to trade job benefits (i.e. hiring, promotion, or continued employment) for sexual favors.

It takes only a single incident of inappropriate sexual behavior to serve as the basis of a sexual harassment claim.

What Should Employers Do?

Employers can take several steps to reduce the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace, including:

  • Sexual Harassment Policy: Have an employee handbook that sets forth a policy defining sexual harassment and the consequences of engaging in such conduct. This policy should also set out a procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints, and state that each complaint will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, and also make it clear that retaliation is unlawful. An employer is not allowed to retaliate against an employee who has filed a sexual harassment complaint, whether or not that complaint is ultimately founded.
  • Train Employees: Employers should hold training sessions for both managers/supervisors and employees to teach them what sexual harassment is and what conduct is acceptable and not. The training should also review complaint procedures, and remind employees that they are entitled to have a workplace free of sexual harassment. Training is highly recommended because your managers and employees should all be familiar with the law and what to do if such conduct should occur, and if you face a lawsuit, you will be able to show that you took the necessary steps to prevent harassment.
  • Monitor Your Workplace: Talk with your employees periodically and ask for their input on any issues that may be occurring inside the workplace. Look around to see if there are any offensive posters or notes that may raise concern. Make your employees aware that the lines of communication are always open.

Sexual harassment has no boundaries, and can occur in any business, and to a male or female. Training and prevention are critical to eliminate these issues to the extent possible. Employers are encouraged to take these necessary steps to eliminate sexual harassment.

Legislative Efforts

In early December, Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (Westchester) introduced a bill that would have the New York State Division of Human Rights develop and implement a uniform sexual harassment policy that would apply to employees of State agencies, offices, departments, and members and employees of the State Assembly and Senate. The policy would create a standard procedure for the handling of sexual harassment complaints and investigation. The future of this bill, and any other new legislation that may come out of this national moment of reckoning regarding sexual harassment, remains to be seen.

For guidance on employee handbooks, policies, and procedures to create a safe workplace, please contact us.