November 22, 2019

You Can’t Prevent Workplace Harassment Claims by Discrimination

by Mathew A. Parker, Fisher Phillips

While workplace harassment claims have steadily risen over the past decade, many employers continued to rely on their "traditional" anti-harassment practices. Then, the #MeToo movement went viral, and many of them began to rethink the effectiveness of the traditional approach to harassment prevention. Often, they recognized that this approach alone was failing to prevent harassment, and began to supplement it with tools for creating positive work relationships and fostering physical and psychological safety in the workplace.

At the same time many employers began moving in a positive direction on harassment prevention, some male executives and managers reacted defensively to the #MeToo movement and began limiting their interactions with their female co-workers and subordinates. This was demonstrated when LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey partnered in 2018 and 2019 to understand workplace relationships between men and women in the #MeToo era. Here are some highlights of what they learned about this exclusionary behavior:

  • 60 percent of male managers reported being “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing together;”
  • “Senior-level men” reported being hesitant to spend time with “junior women” on various basic work activities. They were, for example:
    • “12x more likely to hesitate to have 1-on-1 meetings;”
    • “9x more likely to hesitate to travel together for work;” and
    • “6x more likely to hesitate to have work dinners.”



Approximately one-third of the survey respondents reported that they have avoided interacting with their female colleagues in the workplace because they were “nervous about how it would look” or they were “fearful” of opening themselves up to potential harassment claims.

Avoidance is Bad for All
This line of thinking is not only unfortunate, but it also represents potentially unlawful discrimination. It shows that some men are treating their female colleagues differently than their male ones and, more critically, that they are intentionally blocking them from activities that are vital to their career advancement.

Aside from the potential legal liability from this exclusionary behavior, the underlying misperceptions and fears driving it need to be addressed. In short, everyone involved needs to understand how avoidance is bad for everyone involved. For instance, it:

  • undermines workplace cultures that promote mutual respect for all;
  • frustrates diversity and inclusion initiatives; and
  • leads to potential revenue loss where clients and customers request (and in some instances require) diversity within the organizations with which they work.

How Can Employers Solve the Avoidance Problem?
Employers must start by addressing the root causes of the problem: a misperception about unfounded claims and a mistrust in whether employers can handle complaints of possible harassment fairly and responsibly. Here are a few suggestions for where to start:

  • Call Out Avoidance: Make it clear that excluding women from workplace opportunities – such as mentoring arrangements, lunches, meetings or trips, among others – is never an option.
  • Foster Trust in the Process: Implement a complaint-handling process so employees trust that if a complaint comes, it will be handled in a certain way. Consider sharing information with employees about efforts to prevent harassment, such as complaint/investigation statistics, the nature of corrective actions taken or the resources provided for training and other initiatives. This reminds employees that the complaint/investigation process is there and shows them how it is working.
  • Train (and Regularly Retrain): Managers and employees need to understand what harassment is and how to avoid it. Employers can also provide guidance to them on inclusion in areas such as workplace and social settings, business dinners, work travel and mentoring opportunities.

Parker
Approximately one-third of the survey respondents reported that they have avoided interacting with their female colleagues in the workplace because they were “nervous about how it would look” or they were “fearful” of opening themselves up to potential harassment claims.