It takes just one low-level manager or frontline supervisor to create havoc in the workplace. These people set the tone of, and if that tone has sexual content, others are likely to follow the lead. Then, it’s not long before the workplace turns into a version of the movie “Animal House.”
That’s one good reason to make sure you do more than lecture on sexual harassment. Instead—especially if branch offices are located away from headquarters—HR should make spot visits to see whether anything is amiss.
Possible clues include suggestive posters and an atmosphere so informal that it’s clear civility standards are slipping. Listen to the water-cooler banter. Is it slightly racy? Are people discussing their dates, romantic lives or other personal matters?
Then, at the next staff meeting, reiterate the company’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace and remind employees how to complain about harassment.
Recent case: Serena Moser worked for an outdoor advertising company, spending most of her time in the field. But the company required her to start and finish her day at the Greensboro office where all the employees were men except her and another woman. There, the office supervisor set the tone by constantly commenting on Moser’s body, his desire to have sex with her, his supposed prowess and the desirability of his body.
Moser protested, but the rest of her male co-workers simply joined in the fun. She repeatedly told everyone to cut it out, to no avail. Then the company fired her for failing to get along with her co-workers. She fired right back with a sexual harassment lawsuit.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said her case should go to trial, pointing out that her supervisor made her feel subjectively like sexual prey. Because the conduct was coming from a supervisor, it encouraged additional boorish behavior by co-workers. A jury will decide whether the workplace was objectively sexually hostile. (Moser v. MCC Outdoor, LLC, No. 06-1960, 4th Cir., 2007)
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