Nashville Legal Blog

Addressing the problem of workplace sexual harassment

The news in Tennessee and around the country has been filled with reports of powerful figures who have allegedly engaged in sexual harassment. These reports beg the question of how prevalent sexual harassment in the workplace truly is. Regardless of how frequently it might occur, it is against federal law.

Employers should recognize that for every report of sexual harassment that is made, there are likely many other incidents that have occurred and that have not been reported. Employers should not think that sexual harassment could never happen in their workplaces. Instead, they should take proactive steps to prevent it from happening and to promptly address it when it does.

Transgender woman awarded $1.1 million in discrimination case

Tennessee residents might be interested in learning that a transgender professor has won a $1.1 million verdict award for gender discrimination. The professor was hired by Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2004 in a tenure-track position as an assistant English professor while she was still presenting as a man.

The professor began transitioning to female in 2007 and notified the university that she would be presenting as a woman during the coming school year. She was told by a staff person in the human resources department that the university's vice president for academic affairs was offended by transgender people because of his religious beliefs.

Job discrimination prevalent among LGBT community

The findings of a survey from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights indicated that transgender people face a high level of job discrimination in Tennessee and elsewhere. A representative from the commission said that nearly every transgender worker responding to the survey reported unfair treatment and harassment in the workplace.

Discrimination impacted 90 percent of transgender employees. Over 70 percent of respondents took actions like hiding their gender identity, quitting a job or postponing transition because of concerns about discrimination. Roughly 25 percent of the respondents experienced treatment that included refusal to choose a restroom that matched their gender identity and requirements to dress differently. Others had a supervisor or co-worker disclose personal information without permission about their transgender choices.

Congress moving toward mandatory harassment training

Tennessee residents may have heard about stories of sexual harassment in the news recently. According to Speaker Paul Ryan, all members of the House will undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. Staff members of those representatives also will receive this training. The move comes after the Senate approved a measure requiring all that senators as well as their staff and interns undergo training to prevent sexual harassment.

Speaker Ryan says that the goal is to bring awareness of the issue and make sure that it doesn't occur. One representative from Virginia said that she heard a story about a staffer quitting her job after a lawmaker exposed himself to her at his home. The creation of rules related to harassment may help reduce the odds that anyone has to experience hostile working conditions. In addition that story, there have been allegations that other members of Congress have engaged in sexual misconduct.

One-third of Native Americans experience workplace discrimination

Tennessee readers may be interested to learn that approximately one-third of Native Americans report experiencing workplace discrimination based on their race or ethnicity, according to a new survey. The survey was conducted on behalf of National Public Radio, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The survey asked participants about their general experiences of discrimination, and more than one-third of Native Americans reported experiencing slurs, threats of violence, harassment or discrimination in some area of their life. In the workplace, 33 percent of Native Americans said they had personally experienced racial discrimination when seeking a promotion. Thirty-one percent said they had been discriminated against when applying for a job.

Know the difference between employees and independent contractors

Many employment issues hinge on the classification of an employee. In some cases, employers might try to claim that someone is an independent contractor instead of an employee in order to avoid having to address certain matters. Understand the difference so that you can ensure that you are classified correctly.

Control of the person

Why companies can't ignore harassment

Tennessee employers should be ready to handle any allegations of sexual harassment within their organizations. Failure to do so could have an impact on both a brand's image and its ability to make money. In addition to losing customers, it could lose investors as well as the chance at hiring quality people.

If a charge is filed with the EEOC, the agency will investigate the company to determine if the allegation has merit. If it does, the company could be faced with significant financial losses from a resulting settlement or jury verdict. Ideally, a company will write down its anti-harassment policy and distribute it to all employees. This may both reduce a company's liability and create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated. If an allegation is proven to be true, action should be taken regardless of how important the accused is to the company.

Sexual harassment accusations require employers to investigate

Tennessee might feel a long way from the rising tide of sexual harassment accusations among Hollywood celebrities against their colleagues, but the problem permeates numerous workplaces. The social media hashtag #MeToo produced over a million accounts of sexual harassment and assault worldwide in less than one week. The stories of mostly private individuals revealed the extent of the bad behavior in all corners of society. With the problem in the public eye, more people might file complaints at work, and employers have legal obligations to investigate these allegations.

An employer might avoid costly litigation by conducting a thorough investigation instead of rushing to make the problem go away. Employers should take all types of harassment complaints seriously and assign a qualified individual to conduct an inquiry and document the findings.

The next step after talking to HR

When Tennessee workers are harassed, their employers are supposed to make an effort to resolve the problem. However, it is possible that a human resources representative may try to pretend like a conversation with the employee never happened. While employees may believe that the HR department is there to help them, they may be neutral parties at best. In some cases, they may be on the employer's side.

Those who choose to meet with HR to discuss the harassment that they have experienced may be wise to bring documentation. This may include copies of text messages or digital chats involving rude or vulgar language. It may also be a good idea to take notes about when the meeting with HR took place and who an individual spoke with about the matter. Doing so may reduce the odds that anyone tries to claim that a meeting didn't take place.

How employees can address workplace harassment

Sexual harassment at work may be a problem for employers in Tennessee and throughout the country. While most people acknowledge that it exists, men may have a hard time engaging their female counterparts in a discussion about the issue. However, it is important that men and others who witness or hear about sexual harassment to talk about it. Many victims and witnesses fail to report such behavior out of fear that it could cause additional problems.

One of the best ways to combat sexual harassment may be to say something when it happens instead of waiting or hesitating. This may be a good thing to do even if there are no women or other victims present. Taking such a stand may make efforts to combat sexual harassment more legitimate. Those who are interested in learning more about the issue may wish to talk to those who may have experienced it.

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