WorkZone | Harassment: A problem every employer should take seriously
April 17, 2017 12:00 AM
Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel program "The O'Reilly Factor," 2015 file photo.
By Stephanie Ritenbaugh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill O’Reilly is taking a vacation from his television show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” in the wake of a report that five women were paid a total of $13 million to keep quiet about sexual harassment allegations — news that triggered an exodus of advertisers.
Fox News parent 21st Century Fox said last week it is investigating one of the claims against its popular TV host.
While the average workplace won’t have to deal with a harassment scandal on the scale of what’s happening at Fox, it’s an issue that every employer should take seriously.
Not only does having policies in place protect employees, it makes for a better workplace.
“When employees see something happening at work and are dissatisfied, there are a few options they can take. They can voice their concern, they can exit the company, or they can engage in neglect — which means they may leak information, spread gossip, show up late, steal items,” said R. David Lebel, assistant professor of business administration, organizations and entrepreneurship at the University of Pittsburgh.
“If employees see something as unfair, they’re not going to work hard.”
John Myers, an attorney with Eckert Seamans, notes that the laws on workplace harassment have not really changed.
“We have these highly publicized cases, but the law has been in place for some time,” he said.
An employer’s duty is to have a policy that is communicated to workers prohibiting any harassment of protected traits — gender, orientation, religion, race, etc. And the policy must ensure that an employee won’t be retaliated against for coming forward with a complaint, Mr. Myers said.
The second duty is if a there is a report of harassment, there must be a good faith investigation and corrective action taken if it’s warranted.
“If an employer does that, they won’t be liable in most instances,” Mr. Myers said.
In addition to training employees, employers can take other steps to make sure the workplace culture is welcoming to everyone.
“When you have the policy, from the top down, you have to live the policy,” Mr. Myers said. “It may sound a little trite, but you have to lead by example to create a culture of compliance.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult thing for a worker to tattle on their boss, but when someone does, it must be dealt with in a proper way. Employees can see, then, that this is a place where workers are protected.”
Mr. Lebel notes that for many employees, it’s daunting to make a formal complaint.
“No one really wants to file a formal complaint with their name on it,” he said. “Many are worried that a formal complaint will come back to them.”
Mr. Lebel suggests building a culture where people listen and workers have an outlet for their concerns.
It won’t happen overnight, but taking the time to also create an informal policy where supervisors and managers hear out their employees goes a long way to making sure that, if it’s a serious situation, “There isn’t a victim 8 or victim 9.”
“Especially for a new organization, that’s where you can create those informal policies in addition to the formal ones to build trust,” Mr. Lebel said. “If I was an entrepreneur, I’d create this from the beginning, where workers can talk to manager or manager to boss.”
Mr. Myers encourages workers to be direct with the person who has offended them.
“They may not be aware. They may think they’re just being funny. But for an employee, they should help themselves. Tell the person that you’re offended. Hopefully that will put an end to it. In most cases, I think it will.
“Maybe if they learn they’re hurting people, and they’ll stop,” he said. “If they don’t, they’re in more trouble when the boss finds out that they’ve already been warned.”
Stephanie Ritenbaugh: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4910.
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