Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Is HR on Your Side?
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Not a week goes by without new allegations of sexual harassment surfacing against prominent individuals. From Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose to Minnesota Senator Al Franken and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the list crosses industries from technology and entertainment to news media and politics. The accusers include Hollywood superstars, as well as everyday women and men.
The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is certainly not new. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Generally speaking, it is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Even with state and federal protections, people across the country face sexual harassment in their workplaces. However, the growing number of high profile incidents and the resulting media attention have spurred a great deal of discussion and a shift in how allegations are being reported and responded to.
Instead of going to their superiors or human resource departments, or filing lawsuits through attorneys, many are making accusations via traditional or social media. Those who have been victimized may feel there is safety in numbers, and they are more willing to come forward in an effort to not only tell their story but to protect others from future incidents.
Going public also may stem from frustration over the fact that, historically, sexual harassment cases have been difficult to prove on legal grounds. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces workplace anti-harassment laws, more than half of sexual harassment claims made in 2016 resulted in no charge being filed. Data over the past six years shows a consistent pattern of accusers being unsuccessful.
As increasing numbers of industry leaders and company executives accused of sexual harassment are being dismissed from their positions, it raises the question of how effective human resources departments are when it comes to handling employee complaints. Some of the recent accusers have claimed they reported their issues to HR departments that failed to adequately respond.
A recent article posted by National Public Radio (“NPR”), which has been battling its own share of sexual harassment claims, suggests that one reason HR professionals may be failing employees is that the department’s job often is to protect the company against negative publicity and lawsuits that can be financially disastrous. Many human resources (“HR”) managers struggle to balance the interests of the company and the employee, and they may even be directed by company leadership turn a blind eye to misconduct by a key executive. From the employee’s perspective, it is important to remember that HR is not your friend. Their first allegiance is to the company – not employees.
Employees frustrated with HR can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division Civil Rights (“DCR”) or the federal EEOC, or filed a lawsuit in court based on the NJLAD within a limited period of time. However, while the agency reports that traffic to its website has spiked up in recent weeks, only about a quarter of employees who experience sexual harassment report it.
In light of recent events, this trend may be shifting. Abused employees are becoming emboldened as they see companies firing alleged perpetrators who have been publicly accused. In addition, companies are recognizing they cannot afford to risk the damage that can result from ignoring sexual harassment claims. To help improve HR department performance and regain employees’ trust in their internal processes, firms are considering options such as outsourcing HR to a third party or providing employees with access to an independent outside counselor.
Legislators also are looking at ways to address sexual harassment in the workplace and empower employees when it comes to reporting and investigating abuse. In November, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress introduced legislation aimed at overhauling the system for filing and settling harassment claims from congressional employees. The legislation is in addition to recent moves to mandate previously optional sexual harassment training for all lawmakers and Capitol Hill employees.
In the meantime, it’s likely employees will continue to turn to more direct ways of getting their company’s attention in hopes that their actions will impact the process in a positive way. If you have concerns or questions regarding sexual harassment in your workplace, we are here to help. Please call us at 973-509-8500 x213 or email LFarber@LFarberLaw.com.
The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.