5 things to know about sexual harassment at work

For many women in the workplace, the sexual harassment scandal that led to the recent ouster of Bill O’Reilly as host of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” was depressingly familiar.

Despite the many efforts companies have taken steps to address the problem, the volume of sexual harassment complaints lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was little changed from 2014 through 2016, at around 6,800 a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that 98 percent of companies have sexual harassment policies, and 70 percent provide sexual harassment training, which is required in many states. 

Yet a 2015 survey of more than 2,000 working women by Cosmopolitan magazine found that 75 percent had experienced sexual harassment.

Researchers from the University of Colorado argued last year in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), that many women are afraid to complain if they’re sexually harassed, and bystanders are reluctant to report the objectionable behavior if they see it occur. Victims are worried about being ostracized at work and harming their careers. 

But for companies, the price of ignoring the problem can be steep. In 2015, the EEOC recovered $164.5 million for workers who alleged harassment. The HBR article found that organizations lose about $22,500 a year in lost productivity for each affected employee, who often experience post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Here are some key things to know about sexual harassment in the workplace:

  1. What is sexual harassment? Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior that is so “severe or pervasive” that it affects the victim’s employment. Harassment can be peer to peer, supervisor to subordinate or third-party (vendor, customer or patient to an employee), said Jenna Bedsole, head of the Employment Practices Group at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.

  2. When does office banter cross the line? “Typically, a compliment by a colleague or subordinate on an outfit or his/her appearance or even asking out on a date is not actionable sexual harassment,” Bedsole said. “Multiple comments about appearance coupled with touchings or rubbings are problematic. Likewise, asking out on a date once but then multiple inappropriate texts and visiting uninvited to someone’s house can get you into trouble. “

  3. What should you do if you’re harassed? According to Bedsole, victims should follow the procedures in their employee handbook. If their employer doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy, the person should report the conduct to human resources or a supervisor. “You can tell the offender to stop but the law doesn’t require you to do so,” she said. 

    It’s important for victims to provide their names when filing reports because perpetrators often have multiple victims, said Michelle F. Bercovici, a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based Alden Law Group.

  4. Can this happen to men? EEOC data shows that about 16 percent of harassment complaints come from men. Complaints can be from perpetrators of the same or opposite sex. “It doesn’t matter whether the instigator is male or female or if the receiver is male of female,” said Bercovici.

  5. Can perpetrators get a second chance? “Whether a purported harasser gets a second chance depends on the allegations. However, Bedsole noted that even if the company decides to keep the person who has been accused of the misconduct, the second accusation of harassment requires termination.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.