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Sexual Harassment Awareness Increases, But Risks Still Abound

Nov 5, 2007
The highly publicized sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks has once again drawn attention to this complex legal, and emotional, issue. The $11.6 million punitive award granted to Anucha Browne Sanders, a former marketing executive for the Knicks, sends a powerful message to all employers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Sexual Harassment is defined as, "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."

The gates holding back this oft-hidden and under-publicized problem were shattered sixteen years ago following the historic testimony of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991. The televised hearings brought sexual harassment into the public eye to such a degree that many feminist groups considered Anita Hill to be the mother of gender discrimination awareness. In a recent article, Hill reflects how the population's attitude has changed since that time, in light of the response she received following the Sanders/Knicks verdict:

"In the days after the hearing, I received thousands of supportive letters, the overwhelming majority of which were from women who identified personally with my testimony. Many men who wrote characterized sexual harassment as the fantastic, vengeful invention of disgruntled employees or spurned lovers.

"Four women and three men made up the federal jury that concluded that the harassment Browne Sanders suffered warranted $11.6 million in punitive damages. On the day of the verdict and in response to Clarence Thomas's renewed challenges to my 1991 testimony, I received hundreds of supportive e-mails and calls from around the country. To my surprise, about 50 percent of those responses came from men who through their own observations or the stories told them by their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters understand the problem and its harm." (The Boston Globe, October 15, 2007)

Despite Strides, Harassment Lawsuits Continue to Rise

Despite great strides to combat sexual harassment over the past decade, the problem continues to plague the workplace, as the recent case illustrates. Over two and a half years ago, commencing January 1, 2005, a California Assembly Bill (AB 1825), was signed into law requiring all California employers with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual harassment training for supervisors, managers and lead employees every 24 months. Employers also have a responsibility under California law to provide workplace harassment prevention training to non-supervisory employees as well. However, that very same year, the EEOC received close to 13,000 charges of sexual harassment, with the average costs recovered in monetary benefits increasing dramatically. In 2006, total monetary compensation paid out in sexual harassment related cases exceeded $48.8 million, which was 31% higher than the $37.1 million paid out in 2004.

While common wisdom, and the law, would dictate employers would begin training their staff on proper behavior in the workplace, the reality doesn't match up. According to a recent study by TrainRight Solutions, 41 percent of U.S. employers still don't provide preventive training for sexual harassment, with cost the leading factor for ignoring education in this area.

"I believe that figure is probably close, but still a little low," says Linda Robinson, Training Manager for CPEhr, a Califonia-based HR Consulting Firm. "In the past, I have run across many excuses for an employer to hesitate or turn down an opportunity to provide training. Some include lack of budget; a belief that this will not or does not occur in their work environment; and the fear that a new awareness among employees will encourage rather than prevent lawsuits."

Sexual Harassment Training Solutions

The Supreme Court deems training "essential" and the EEOC guidelines state that it is the responsibility of all employers to train all employees. Respect in the workplace, when properly demonstrated, can not only boost employee moral and productivity, but can greatly reduce the potential liabilities of an employer. Legal experts agree that the more pro-active an organization, the more likely they will reduce their employment liabilities.

Robinson's company CPEhr, like many other HR consulting and outsourcing firms, provides answers and assures employers that taking preventive measures is the right approach. Helping companies establish appropriate policies and deal with complex sexual harassment issues is key to minimizing employer risk.

"CPEhr is dedicated to assisting employers in providing and maintaining a safe environment," said Robinson. "This is accomplished through several means, including review and updating of policies, handbooks and other materials, free training, and other supervisory developmental training programs."

The most popular of all CPEhr's Management Training Courses is the topic of Unlawful Harassment. All clients are provided training as per the law requires, and many more request additional trainings to further educate their staff. A comprehensive Sexual Harassment training course should cover the following topics:

* The laws that prohibit unlawful harassment in the workplace
* Specific forms of harassment
* How to prevent harassment and hostile environments
* Identify retaliation and why it is illegal
* The rights and responsibilities of all staff members
* Consequences of harassment suits
* What to do in the even of a harassment charge
* How to conduct an investigation

The Future

It is unlikely that harassment in the workplace will disappear any time soon. While "Sensitivity Training" is becoming a common buzzword in the marketplace, employers are well-advised to implement a formal harassment prevention training program in their business. Recognizing the lack of internal resources in small companies, many HR firms are available to provide the proper training to satisfy the law, and educate the workforce. The growth of HR Consulting and Outsourcing has skyrocketed in the past years. While many factors have contributed to this trend, one leading consideration is the increased awareness surrounding harassment and other employment risks.

While at first glace it may appear that implementing sexual harassment guidelines may be costly, employers should recognize the higher expenses related to fines or penalties for an ill-educated workforce. And aside from protecting the business for lawsuits, training the staff on preventing unlawful harassment is just the right thing to do.
About the Author
Ari Rosenstein is the Marketing Director of CPEhr. Founded in 1982, CPEhr is one of the largest HR Outsourcing and PEO firms in California.
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