When one employee makes sexually offensive remarks or unwelcome sexual advances toward another employee, it can constitute sexual harassment and can create a hostile workplace environment. Unfortunately, such sexual harassment may be more prevalent than employees realize, in part due to a lack of reporting by employees for fear of retaliation by their employer.
The responsibility of an employer
When an employee files a complaint, the company should take immediate action to investigate the claim seriously. If the ensuing investigation confirms that sexual harassment occurred, the employer must take appropriate corrective action on behalf of the victim to remedy the current situation and to prevent further harassment. If an employer does not take appropriate action, the company may be liable for the acts of its employees.
Why aren’t companies defending the victims?
Recently, a federal investigation found that Uber Technologies Inc. had permitted rampant sexual harassment within its company and that it had often retaliated against victim employees when they had reported such harassment. After nearly a two-year investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Uber agreed to establish a $4.4 million fund to settle previous claims, and to create a system to hold managers accountable if they fail to address sexual harassment claims appropriately.
An EEOC district director noted that there is a trend among employers of sexual harassment allegations being ignored when the accused is more valuable to the company than the victim.
What rights do employees have?
Employers have a legal responsibility to protect all employees from sexual harassment. For example, New York employers with 15 or more employees must provide annual sexual harassment prevention training to their employees.
Additionally, employees must not face any retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. According to the EEOC, retaliation may include, but is not limited to:
- Giving an employee an undeserved negative performance review
- Transferring an employee to a less desirable position
- Scrutinizing or degrading an employee
- Making an employee’s job more difficult
Unfortunately, the EEOC notes that sexual harassment issues might go unreported as employees hope the harassment will simply stop on its own. Filing a formal complaint is often their very last resort.
It is important for victims to understand that their employer has an obligation to investigate allegations in a timely manner. An employee can take legal action against their employer if the company, upon learning of the harassment, either fails to act or retaliates against the victim.