Following the highly publicized lawsuit brought against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks, sexual harassment has once again reared its ugly head. Despite strides to reduce harassment in the workplace, employers must still do more to educate themselves and their staff. Professional HR consulting and outsourcing firms such as CPEhr provide such a solution.
The highly publicized sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks has once again drawn attention to this complex legal, and emotional, issue. The $11.6 million punitive award granted to Anucha Browne Sanders, a former marketing executive for the Knicks, sends a powerful message to all employers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Sexual Harassment is defined as, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
The gates holding back this oft-hidden and under-publicized problem were shattered sixteen years ago following the historic testimony of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991. The televised hearings brought sexual harassment into the public eye to such a degree that many feminist groups considered Anita Hill to be the mother of gender discrimination awareness. In a recent article, Hill reflects how the population’s attitude has changed since that time, in light of the response she received following the Sanders/Knicks verdict:
- “In the days after the hearing, I received thousands of supportive letters, the overwhelming majority of which were from women who identified personally with my testimony. Many men who wrote characterized sexual harassment as the fantastic, vengeful invention of disgruntled employees or spurned lovers.
- “Four women and three men made up the federal jury that concluded that the harassment Browne Sanders suffered warranted $11.6 million in punitive damages. On the day of the verdict and in response to Clarence Thomas's renewed challenges to my 1991 testimony, I received hundreds of supportive e-mails and calls from around the country. To my surprise, about 50 percent of those responses came from men who through their own observations or the stories told them by their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters understand the problem and its harm.” (The Boston Globe, October 15, 2007)
Despite Strides, Harassment Lawsuits Continue to Rise
Despite great strides to combat sexual harassment over the past decade, the problem continues to plague the workplace, as the recent case illustrates. Over two and a half years ago, commencing January 1, 2005, a California Assembly Bill (AB 1825), was signed into law requiring all California employers with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual harassment training for supervisors, managers and lead employees every 24 months. Employers also have a responsibility under California law to provide workplace harassment prevention training to non-supervisory employees as well. However, that very same year, the EEOC received close to 13,000 charges of sexual harassment, with the average costs recovered in monetary benefits increasing dramatically. In 2006, total monetary compensation paid out in sexual harassment related cases exceeded $48.8 million, which was 31% higher than the $37.1 million paid out in 2004.
While common wisdom, and the law, would dictate employers would begin training their staff on proper behavior in the workplace, the reality doesn’t match up. According to a recent study by TrainRight Solutions, 41 percent of U.S. employers still don’t provide preventive training for sexual harassment, with cost the leading factor for ignoring education in this area.
“I believe that figure is probably close, but still a little low,” says Linda Robinson, Training Manager for CPEhr, a Califonia-based HR Consulting Firm. “In the past, I have run across many excuses for an employer to hesitate or turn down an opportunity to provide training. Some include lack of budget; a belief that this will not or does not occur in their work environment; and the fear that a new awareness among employees will encourage rather than prevent lawsuits.”