Sexism is Unlawful Too

Did you know that sexism is against the law all by itself?  Individuals can be sexist without sexually harassing someone?  Much of the #MeToo has focused on the ravages of sexual harassment  #TimesUp has focused a bit differently, focusing on the lack of advancement of women and wage gap issues.  This distinction is important.  While conduct that could constitute sexual harassment is often included in a sex discrimination cases, sexism by itself is also against the law.

Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination “based upon sex” includes many things (and arguably more things).  This “because of sex” provision in the law makes both sexism and sexual harassment unlawful.  It is just as unlawful to engage in sexist behavior as it is to sexually harass someone.  Both are demeaning, discriminatory, and dastardly.

Let’s start with sexual harassment.  Under the law, sexual harassment can be:  (1) quid pro quo which conditions employment (or advancement) on sexual favors or enduring sexual conduct; or (2) unwelcome conduct or comments that create a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive.  (We’ve dealt with welcomeness in another post.)  Often, sexual harassment cases include sexual touching, like sexual assault, but they don’t need to.  Frequent comments about someone’s sex life or sexual organs (including breasts) can create a hostile work environment.  Moreover, sexual harassment can be unlawful even if it has nothing to do with sexual desire.  It only has to do with sex and/or sexual stereotypes.

Plain, old-fashioned sexism can also cause a hostile work environment that is unlawful under Title VII.  Sexism is unlawful when enduring the offensive conduct or comments is a condition of employment or the conduct or comments are severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment is intimidating, hostile, or offensive.  Sounds familiar, right?  It should.  Yet, sexism doesn’t need to have anything to do with the act of sex – just a person’s sex.

Take for example demeaning comments like “A woman’s place is in the kitchen,” “Women should always be barefoot and pregnant,” “Grow a pair” or (my favorite excuse for derogatory behavior) “Boys will be boys.”  These comments are designed to demean women.  Period.  When these comments are pervasive (a/k/a happen a lot), they create a work environment that is hostile to women and unlawful.  When the comments are paired with conduct, such as only assigning men to do lifting tasks or segregating the sexes to handle particular work, the employer can (and should) be on the hook for discrimination.

These derogatory comments are often coupled with other signs of sexism.  This includes disparities in pay, lack of advancement, and even underrepresentation of women throughout an organization.  All of these need to be tackled even though they’re hard.  And, all need to be tackled even if no allegations of sexual harassment exist.

When an HR pro gets a report of sexism, she should treat it just as she would a report of racism.  Could the comments be demeaning to women?   Could the comments be offensive?  Could the conduct be an attempt to separate employees by gender?  Are other issues – like pay and representation – affected by sexism?  The question of whether any sexual activity – comments or conduct – occurred does not need to enter into the analysis unless it was reported too.  Just because sexual behavior is not included doesn’t mean the employer gets off scot-free.  Sexism is just as unlawful all by its lonesome.

 

Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash

 

 

Harassment & Being the Boss

In response to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, state legislatures and localities are taking action, including requiring sexual harassment training and policies that explain where employees can turn if they don’t believe their employer has handled the situation appropriately.  New York’s new law requires that policies explain that employees will be disciplined for engaging in harassment and – perhaps most importantly – managers will be disciplined when they allow harassment to happen.

Did you read that?  Managers will be disciplined for letting harassment continue. This is where NBC, CBS, and nearly every employer who makes the news has allegedly failed – a manager knew about the behavior and didn’t make it stop.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is why manager training is critical to the end of harassment.

The law focuses on managers because managers are the employer.  They make crucial decisions, like hiring and firing.  They sign contracts.  Often, the buck stops with them even if they are in the dreaded middle management.  This means managers are responsible to take action when they get wind of harassment, but often, managers don’t understand the crucial role they play in preventing and stopping harassment.  As legislative bodies take more and more action, here are some of the lessons you can incorporate into your training now:

Managers must know the work environment they create and manage.  For a manager, the word “manage” is in her title.  So, she must actually manage.  Merriam-Webster defines the verb “manage” as “to direct or carry on business or affairs.”  No one can effectively do this if she doesn’t know what is going on or doesn’t understand how her people interact.  So, dear manager, know your people.  Also, set a tone of respect with your people.  Be the example.  (You can have bad days – pobody’s nerfect – but when you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move forward.)  While the “doing” might be more fun, the “managing” is your job.  When you know the work environment, you can take steps to prevent harassment.

Managers have the power to do something.  A manager can’t throw her hands up when she learns about possible harassment.  Harassment requires her to dig in, tackle the problem, and sometimes, make some really difficult decisions.  Organizations may differ on what exactly they want the manager to do – report to HR, step in and separate the people, suspend the alleged harasser, discipline, etc. – so train the manager on what to do and who to talk to when she needs help.  (Remember, managers need to know enough.)  In manager training, go through scenarios, talk through what the organization would want the managers to do.  This will invite participation, just the kind of interactive dialogue the EEOC and state agencies want in harassment training.

There is no such thing as an official complaint.  A whiff, a rumor, seeing someone uncomfortable or crying, a conversation between a manager and an employee that’s “just between us” all trigger action by an employer.  In order to have a defense to harassment claim, an employer must take “timely and appropriate action” when it learns of harassment, so if a manager learns of harassment, she puts the employer on the hook to take action.  Waiting for an “official” complaint is not only poor management, it creates liability for an employer.  No manager wants to do that.

You will get in trouble for harassing too.  Because the law treats managers as the employer, when a manager engages in harassment, the employer can automatically be liable for the harassment.  Managers have to understand this.

Harassment hasn’t always been clear, and the courts haven’t helped much.  That said, we have an ethical obligation to help employees and managers understand it and how we define respect in our workplaces.  The difference between “You look nice today” and “That dress hugs you in all the right ways” is respect.  One statement is a respectful compliment.  The other can be characterized as harassment.  Will your managers step in when they hear the dress one?  Will they know what to do?  Your managers absolutely need to know what to do at the moment the statement is made or when an employee tells what happened.  So, train them.  Please.

 

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Let Go of Welcomeness

In the legal world, welcomeness has been an element of a sexual harassment claim since Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson – the first U.S. Supreme Court case to recognize sexual harassment under Title VII.  Did the alleged victim welcome the breast grab?  Did she engage in the sexual banter herself?  Did he want his “junk tapped” by coworkers?  If a claim is going to be successful, this analysis is a must.

Yet, this legal standard doesn’t capture the reality of workplace harassment.  It ignores several factors that are at play that could suggest the conduct is welcome when it is most definitely not.  Let me try to convince you that we need to focus on the conduct or comments of harassment and not whether that same conduct is welcome.

People say, “it’s okay” to make the encounter end quickly.

When something bad happens, we often say, “it’s okay” because we want a couple of things: (1) we don’t want to really talk about how we’re feeling, and (2) we want to get out of this situation.  This happens with sexual harassment too.  If someone grabs a butt or a breast – especially if that person is a co-worker or god forbid a manager – we want to get out of this situation fast.  Like super duper fast.  If we actually talk about how this feels or if we challenge a person who has input on our career (including co-workers), we might feel that we’re going to make the situation worse.  So, we say, “it’s okay,” “don’t worry about it” or even shrug it off.  These words or shrug are not words of consent but are words of resignation.  We’re resigned that this happened, and we want to move on.

People do this all the time.  We don’t always confront our racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner or our pastor after a particularly homophobic sermon.  We don’t because we don’t want to cause trouble.  So, why do we make harassment targets do the same thing to prove that they actually were harassed?  (If I had a dime for every harassment policy that says you must tell the harasser to stop as the first step…)

For HR and harassment investigators, the “it’s okay” is a challenge.  For those focused on whether the conduct was welcome, this is the silver bullet.  She said, “it’s okay” so it must be.  It was welcome.  Nothing to see here.  No harassment.  This is the problem. Reminder: Employers have an obligation to keep harassment out of the workplace. Employees have no obligation to report under the law.

Even when sexual conduct is welcome, it’s unwelcome to somebody.

In harassment trainings, I go through a bunch of scenarios.  One of my favorite rapid-fire scenarios is this:

Colin has been head’s down on a project for weeks.  The project is finally over, and he accompanies the team to happy hour to celebrate.  He’s so happy to be done with the project, he kisses Judy.  Is this harassment?

Without fail, within five seconds of reading this scenario, some jokester yells out “what if Judy is his wife?”  I give him (always a him), a look that screams “listen, buster” and calmly say, “Do you work with your wife?”  (Hushed giggles throughout the crowd.)  If Judy was Colin’s wife, arguably he does not engage in sexual harassment as the law would view it.  If Judy is his wife and they begin a rigorous game of tonsil hockey, then the team around them turn their heads away, get up to go to the bathroom, and/or otherwise consider calling it a night.  If this happens, there is an arguable case for sexual harassment since the team clearly did not want to watch the competitive sport of kissing as played by their coworkers.

Here’s another rapid-fire example:

Peter and Juliet joke around all the time.  The jokes have turned flirty with both commenting on each other’s bums.  Is this harassment?

Depending on the industry I’m training, a varying degree of uncomfortableness spreads throughout the crowd.  They suspect the answer is yes, and some will admit they may have done this but they’re not sure if this is “illegal.”  I explain that I’ve helped an organization in a very similar circumstance where the banter was consensual, but the person next to them had to hear it day in and day out.  Eventually, he complained to his boss who then promptly fired him.  While the underlying sexual harassment claim might not have been actionable, the retaliation that resulted was clear.  The lesson here for employees – don’t engage in sexual banter even when you and the other person wants to.

Even when sexual conduct is welcome, it doesn’t always stay welcome.

News flash:  Romantic relationships fail at an alarming rate.  Consider all the relationships that an individual has to go through before marriage.  Then consider that half of marriages fail.  That’s a lot of failed relationships.  In the workplace, relationships fail a lot too.  When a welcome, romantic relationship fails the potential for harassment or retaliation to occur is high.  Scorned lovers – male or female – exist and wreak havoc.  They can seek to rekindle their love with unwanted words, gestures, and touching – all potential conduct in violation of an employer’s sexual harassment policy.

Let’s let go of welcomeness.

When we get a complaint of harassment, we need to look at the conduct or comments that led to the complaint.  It shouldn’t matter whether the conduct was invited or even wanted.  What should matter is that we don’t want our employees, clients, customers, vendors, etc. to watch a rigorous game of tonsil hockey, a butt grab, or hear a particularly randy joke.  We shouldn’t tolerate it in our workplaces regardless of whether it was the married couple in cubes four and ten or the supervisor to her employee in the breakroom.  It’s the conduct that is the problem, not whether it was welcome conduct.

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

Why Help An Employee?

I’m a management-side employment law attorney.  I get to work with human resources. In fact, I am an HR professional.  So, why on God’s green Earth would I, as an attorney, help an employee?

HR has been taking a huge hit lately.  The #MeToo movement and the countless stories of rampant sexual harassment are now (thankfully) part of the national conversation.  The reoccurring theme has been “Where was HR?” or “Why didn’t HR do something?”  While that criticism in some circumstances may be fair, HR is a bit like the CIA.  We only hear about the bad things HR does (or doesn’t do), and we rarely hear about all the good HR pros out there who have steeled themselves and done what is right.  I’m lucky to know many of them.

When an HR pro doesn’t do the right thing – especially when they are given the chance repeatedly – there comes a time when the friendly neighborhood employment attorney has to challenge that particular HR department.  I do this because we need good HR.  When bad HR hurts one of us, it hurts all of us.  So, it is up to us to take us on, to speak up and help those employees who have done everything in their power, given their employers every opportunity to do the right thing and yet have had the door to HR (and management) closed to them.

I’m lucky to currently represent an employee.  You can hear her story here.  It may be a fair criticism that as a management-side attorney, I shouldn’t represent her.  To me, I should.  Because if I’m going to help HR do better, sometimes that means I have to take us on when we’ve done wrong.

 

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

DisruptHR Minneapolis

DisruptHR posted the video of my presentation, “Compliance is Sexy.”  I hope you enjoy!


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/243583681″>Compliance Is Sexy | Kate Bischoff | DisruptHR Talks</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/disrupthr”>DisruptHR</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>