The COVID pandemic continues to have a tremendous impact on the workplace. Some employers continue to require employees to work remotely. On the other hand, after seventeen (17) months of isolation, employers are allowing employees back into the workplace. Regardless of the setting, COVID creates enhanced risks of sexual harassment for workers, especially female workers.
Consider the following fact pattern. Sally is 24 years old. She graduated college from UNC Charlotte in May 2020. Because of COVID, it took her until May 2021 to land her first full-time job. Sally was thrilled. After months of lockdown, isolation, and frustration, she could start her adult life. Her employer began easing its work from home, and no travel to the client, restrictions in June 2021. Sally was assigned to a marketing team that provides services to client XYZ. In July 2021, her entire marketing team traveled together for the first time in 17 months to visit client XYZ in Atlanta. The purpose of the trip was to make a presentation to XYZ management on a new marketing program developed by Sally’s team. Sally’s team had eight members. She was the only female and the youngest member of the team by 20 years.
The presentation went great! Sally’s boss and team leader decided to celebrate the day by holding a team dinner that night at an Atlanta restaurant. It was the team’s first in-person team dinner in 18 months. Everyone had a great time. The dinner lasted over 3 hours- in fact- the boys were so excited they turned the business dinner into a fraternity kegger. The drinking went on for hours and the night ended with countless rounds of shots. As the evening wore on, the boys showered Sally with attention. The attention progressed from silly jokes to sexual jokes to questions about Sally’s sex life. Sally did not enjoy the evening.
The next day, Sally’s boss met with her and tried to explain and help her understand the behavior of the prior evening. He told her that everyone was so happy because of the success of the presentation and the fact it was the first time they had all been together in so long, she needed to forgive the harassing behavior. He asked if she could keep the events of the prior evening to herself. What happens on the road should stay on the road. Because this was Sally’s first real job, and it had taken her so long to secure the position in the COVID environment, she agreed to keep things quiet. SALLY MADE A BIG MISTAKE.
Sexual harassment or other inappropriate conduct must be immediately reported to a supervisor, manager, or the employer’s Human Resources department. Only by reporting the inappropriate conduct can Sally protect herself and her co-workers from illegal sexual harassment. In order to hold employers liable for sexual harassment, the organization must be aware of the harassment; and the only way to make your employer aware of the harassment is to report it to management.
When you complain, you must be as detailed as possible and don’t be shy about including specifics about profanity or sexual remarks. If a coworker calls you a “bitch”, don’t tell your supervisor somebody cursed at you. Report the use of the word “bitch”. If a male coworker remarks: “Sally you have huge jugs,” then Sally needs to tell her boss or Human Resources exactly what was said. She needs to report the use of the word “jugs specifically.” Sally can’t be shy or timid and simply tell her boss someone made comments about her body. Identifying the precise words used helps the employer fully understand the nature of the problem and prevents the employer from later claiming it didn’t appreciate how bad things were.
All employers have a sexual harassment policy. The policy may be in the company’s handbook, on an online portal, or posted on a bulletin board in the breakroom. Wherever it is, get a copy and read it. The policy will contain instructions on how to report harassment. Employees must make sure they follow the written procedures on reporting harassment. The policy may also include a 1-800 telephone number you can call to report the harassment to the corporate or main office, human resources department. When you do make a complaint, provide as much detail as possible, including:
1. The name of the person harassing you.
2. When did the harassment occur.
3. Where did the harassment occur.
4. How often did it occur.
5. What was specifically done or said.
6. The names of any witnesses to the harassment.
Always demand the harasser to stop-tell them you don’t want them harassing you.
In order for harassment to be illegal, it must be unwanted. There must be evidence the victim wanted it to stop. If you are being harassed, tell the harasser to stop each time they engage in the behavior. If a man asks a woman out on a date, and the woman is not interested, she needs to tell him no. If he continues to ask her out, she needs to tell him to stop asking her out. If someone tells a sexual joke that offends you, don’t fake laughter to go along with the conduct you find offensive- the victim needs to tell the person telling the sexual jokes to stop.
The deadlines for filing sexual harassment claims are much shorter than the typical legal claim. People who have been the victim of sexual harassment must also file charges with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or similar state agencies before they can file a lawsuit. The deadline for filing a discrimination charge can be as short as 180 days from the first act of sexual harassment.
The Charlotte, North Carolina-based employment lawyers with the Law Offices of Jason E. Taylor are available to meet with victims of sexual harassment and help them evaluate their claims. We help the victims of sexual harassment file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and similar state agencies.