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Much Ado About Sexual Harassment

Lansing businesses urged to pay attention to how these claims can affect workers and companies Sexual harassment has become a huge topic of interest in the last few months due t…

Lansing businesses urged to pay attention to how these claims can affect workers and companies

Sexual harassment has become a huge topic of interest in the last few months due to accusations against several politicians, TV personalities, comedians and actors. Two recent national surveys show just how vital it is for businesses to pay attention to how sexual harassment affects workers.

According to a YouGov poll involving nearly 5,000 participants last April, 30 percent of women and 15 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment. In addition, 25 percent of U.S. adults have witnessed being sexually harassed in their workplace.

The All-America Survey in December 2017 by CNBC found that 19 percent of adults in the U.S. reported being a victim of workplace sexual harassment; this included 10 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women in the survey, which numbered 800 participants.

While these surveys were national, Michigan businesses in the Greater Lansing area cannot assume sexual harassment is not happening here. Lansing businesses must be wise on exactly what sexual harassment is and how to recognize it, prevent it and protect their companies against these types of claims.

According to Aaron L. Davis, an attorney specializing in commercial litigation at the Fraser Trebilcock law firm, the EEOC defines sexual harassment as illegal harassment due to the sex of the victim. Harassment could be things such as unwanted sexual advances, asking for sexual favors or any other spoken or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

“This law applies to both men and women, and a harasser could be anyone in a person’s work area such as their supervisor, someone else’s supervisor, a coworker or even a customer or client,” said Davis.

Sexual harassment can present itself in a variety of ways. Chris Hammond, an attorney at Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith PC, explains that “quid pro quo” is the most common type of sexual harassment.

“Quid pro quo means ‛this for that,’ and is when an employee is asked to engage in or permit sexual behavior or else they will not receive some sort of benefit like a raise, promotion or continued employment,” said Hammond.

The second type of sexual harassment typically recognized by law is the creation of a hostile work environment through intimidating, hostile or offensive actions. This could mean sexual advances that include sexual jokes or comments, discussions, or displays of related items.

Under Michigan law, a sexual harassment victim must first confront the person harassing them and tell them that what they’re doing is not welcome. It should also be reported to a supervisor, unless of course the supervisor is the harasser; in that case, it should be reported to someone such as the human resources director.

“Michigan businesses are required to follow both state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment,” said Hammond. “However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations.” Michigan workers also have protection under the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), which applies to all employers and does not have an employee minimum.

The ELCRA states that sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, asking for sexual related favors or other kinds of spoken or physical actions that are sexually related. It requires the incident to be made as a term or condition so that if the person rejects the harasser, then they won’t get a job or certain benefit, or their current job, education, housing or public accommodation is otherwise interfered with. It also recognizes that sexual harassment can include men and women as either the victim or the harasser.

Anyone that believes they have suffered sexual harassment at their workplace can file a complaint under ELCRA, as long as the incident of sexual harassment has happened in the last 180 days and is related to employment, education, housing, public accommodation, public service or law enforcement.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights investigates and resolves discrimination issues such as sexual harassment and works to prevent it via educational programs, as well as through resources and services provided to businesses that concern diversity initiatives and equal employment law.

“Bringing more attention to sexual harassment is both important and the right thing to do,” said Agustin V. Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “Too many incidents of sexual harassment go unreported for fear of retaliation. And, fear of losing one’s job is a very real concern.”

If someone is being harassed and the situation meets the standard guidelines, he or she can make a complaint through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights either by calling (800) 482-3604 or via their website at Michigan.gov/MDCR.

Just how can Lansing businesses try to stem the tide of sexual harassment in the workplace?

“Businesses should have a written policy in place that explicitly prohibits sexual harassment,” said Hammond. “The written policy should be made a part of the employee handbook, and all new/current employees should be required to sign an acknowledgement indicating receipt and agreement with the company policy. The written policy should also set forth that any employee that commits sexual harassment will be subject to discipline — to include possible termination.”

He added that businesses also must take claims of sexual harassment seriously and investigate them thoroughly, up to and including hiring outside investigators and attorneys to review the claims.

“Sexual harassment can be addressed through a little training and sound policies. But, if an employer fails to take concerns seriously, they can spend a tremendous amount of resources defending their managers and employee’s actions,” said Hammond. “Many of these charges and lawsuits can go on for years.”

Steps that a business should take regarding sexual harassment claims include:

  • • Make the company’s sexual harassment policy known via an employee handbook and make certain all employees read and sign it. If there is no policy, create one.
  • Educate all employees with trainings and classes on sexual harassment, at least annually.
  • Address all sexual harassment complaints at once; don’t delay the investigation.
  • Do formal investigation of all sexual harassment claims beginning with interviews with all involved parties, and if needed, escalate it to higher authority.
  • Make sure to follow through with the above investigation. Take any actions deemed necessary such as disciplinary procedures if required.
  • Look for any retaliation by the accused harasser against the worker who made the sexual harassment claim, especially if the accuser was not found guilty.

Sexual harassment is not a victimless crime; it is a tragedy that can affect not only the one being harassed but their family, friends and coworkers. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a viral subject; all businesses in the Greater Lansing area should take all such claims seriously, take action to protect their employees and do their best to prevent harm and prosecute harassers.


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