The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially made harassment in the workplace illegal. Over the years, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) slowly built a large body of regulations aimed at preventing sexual harassment at work. However, despite the ongoing efforts by employers to educate and inform employees of the harmful effects and risks of unlawful harassment, it is unfortunately still very prevalent in today’s workplace.
The EEOC Sexual Harassment Charge Statistics website indicates that while the number of claims has dipped slightly in recent years, over 11,000 claims are still reported annually. This translates to approximately 5 harassment claims, every working hour! And while the number of claims may be down, the monetary benefits have increased, reaching $52 million in 2011, the highest in the past decade.
By examining a few key harassment cases that clarify national and state legal standards, and by detailing policy and training guidelines, employers can gain new insights into preventing costly harassment suits.
In the groundbreaking case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court recognized that sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe as to alter an individual’s terms and conditions of employment is a violation of federal law and breaches Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Two separate Supreme Court rulings in the Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Ellerth v. Burlington Northern Industries cases placed a strong emphasis on the need for education and training in the workplace.
The Supreme Court established that in order to reduce liability for harassment claims, a company must:
- train both employees and managers
- oblige employees to report any incidents of harassment
- carefully investigate each report
- implement corrective measures when necessary
The court also distinguished between supervisor harassment that results in tangible employment action (TEA) such as discharge, failure to promote or demotion, and supervisor harassment that does not. If the result is TEA, the employer is always liable. If not, the company may defend itself providing it can prove:
1) The company exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexual harassing behavior.
2) The plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer to avoid harm.
The Supreme Court rendered an important ruling in the Kolstad v. American Dental Association case. Employers may not be liable for punitive damages if they show “good faith efforts” to train all managers, complying with anti-discrimination law. Employers may avoid liability for punitive damages in cases where supervisors or managers discriminate, retaliate or harass employees if the actions of these supervisors are clearly in opposition to the overall efforts expended by the company to eliminate discrimination.
What are included in these overall efforts? A policy, while necessary, is not sufficient. Efforts must also include training and immediate responses to any complaints.
We’ll continue the discussion in our next post with specific guidelines for anti-harassment training in the workplace.