Pens & Company Ink

Recently, I gave a presentation on sexual harassment to a group of compliance professionals from some of the largest organizations in the Midwest.  At one point, an audience member called me a Sexual McCarthyist because I said CEOs shouldn’t have relationships – even consensual ones – with anyone in the company.  Given the news out of Chicago on Sunday, let’s go over why.

When a CEO engages in sexual harassment, the organization is vicariously liable for the conduct  Citing U.S. Supreme Court case Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275, 2284 (1998), here’s what the EEOC’s Guidance says:

An employer is liable for unlawful harassment whenever the harasser is of a sufficiently high rank to fall “within that class . . . who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”

The Guidance goes further and lists individuals who could be considered an organization’s proxy, including president, owner, partner, and corporate officer – like a CEO.  Vicarious liability means the organization has no defense to a harassment claim and is automatically liable if the conduct was indeed harassment.

So, was the conduct harassment?  Well, let me take all of your hopeless romantic hearts and crush them.  Relationships fail at a remarkable rate.  Think of all the people you have to date before you find “the one” and then “the one” has a better-than-fair chance of ending in divorce.

Now, imagine you’re a CEO.  You have a significant amount of authority over everyone in your organization.  You start flirting with an employee.  The employee may feel that they don’t have the option to say no to a couple of dates.  Things start to heat up, but something is not right.  The employee feels they can’t break up for fear of losing their job or ending their career (like blacklisting, etc.).  So, even though they may have liked the attention at the start, they can’t stop when it turns ugly.  Now, the relationship is no longer consensual.  This is harassment.

Or, what if the break-up is consensual but now the CEO has to rate the employee’s performance?  The employee is afraid that the CEO will be vindictive or will treat them unfairly because of the break-up.  This could be retaliation.

The best thing an organization can do is prohibit CEOs (and other C-suite individuals) from having relationships at work.  Period.  Institute a policy.  Talk with the board and leadership.  Explain you will enforce this.  Then, if it happens, take action.  This was what happened at McDonald’s.  This is what happened at Intel.

As my grandfather said (to his 14-year-old granddaughter (see, I was made for this work)), “Don’t get your money where you get your honey,” and “Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.”  If you’re a CEO out there, take these idioms to heart.  Not following them could end your career.

 

 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Why Talking Remedies Is A Bad Idea

I get to do a TON of respectful workplace trainings, otherwise known as harassment training.  It is one of my favorite things to do.  However, a new requirement for harassment training irks me to no end.

It’s the requirement under California, Illinois, New York, and potentially more state laws that requires that we talk about the remedies available to harassment victims.  I don’t hate the remedies – victims of harassment are entitled to all the remedies out there and then some.  I just don’t like talking about them in training.

Why you ask?  Victims of harassment are already plagued with a seemingly endless list of reasons NOT to report harassment, including retaliation, exposing an embarrassing incident(s), fear of being judged about the clothes they wear, fear of not being able to pay their mortgage, rent, car payment, student loan, child care bills, etc.  Telling them about the remedies available to them, all of which could bankrupt the very organization they’re working for, adds an additional burden to a victim.  Victims of harassment don’t always want to bring down their employer – they want to bring down the harasser or at the very least, make the conduct stop.  They don’t want their friends to lose their jobs too.  Victims went to work for their employer because they believed in the mission, need the work, and want to work there.  Talking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars at play in a harassment lawsuit doesn’t provide comfort, it adds to the load.

In training, I’m doing my darndest to encourage targets of harassment to tell HR or any manager about what is happening.  Trying to reduce the burdens of reporting, encouraging co-workers to help, promising retaliation will not happen, and that HR is a safe place for them to go.  Taking a hard left to “your report could cost this organization tons of money” is halting transition without out much benefit.

The required remedies discussion was probably designed to scare harassers.  It should!  But by and large, employers are on the hook for the money, not the individual harasser.  The harasser is rarely held to account.  They may lose their jobs, but they don’t owe restitution to the victim or even the employer.  It is the organization and its employees who suffer most through the time and resources taken up by a lawsuit.  Yes, in many cases, the organization needed to do better to protect employees, but spelling out its possible demise is not going to convince a victim to raise their voice.

Employers need to do better without a doubt.  And, a good training is a great step.  Scaring victims even more is not the answer.  Dear Legislators, please understand this and let me do my job.  I really like it, and I’m pretty good at it.

End rant.  Thank you.

 

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash