Think that sexual harassment at work is out of the picture because of COVID-19? Last week the public was reminded that sexual harassment did not end with the #MeToo movement back in 2017. The findings of the New York State Attorney General relating to Andrew Cuomo and his subsequent resignation demonstrate that there is still liability for employers that do not take affirmative steps to prevent or address harassment.
Several of the allegations made against Governor Cuomo predate COVID-19. However, several occurred during COVID-19 and reflect an uneven power dynamic and sexualization surrounding testing and masks. Many workplaces face similar challenges. Even in the virtual space, an insensitive comment or sexual remark can lead to a toxic workplace and increase the number of complaints. I recommend that employers take this opportunity to reconsider this approach to harassment in the workplace with the following tips:
- Training is still important. After #MeToo, many employers launched annual trainings on what is/is not acceptable in the workplace. However, issues relating to COVID-19 put trainings on the back burner. I recommend that employers ensure that staff receive a training to review the rules and reporting mechanisms for harassment claims. The session is best if interactive – which can be facilitated through a virtual forum (such as Zoom or Teams) to allow for questions and feedback.
- Pinpoint and address inappropriate behavior. One issue that comes up frequently in the Attorney General’s report is a feeling by victims that Governor Cuomo’s behavior was the “status quo.” More specifically, even though they felt his actions were inappropriate, they felt that there was not much that could be done given the power of the governor’s office. The report cites others witnessing the inappropriate behavior, however, no changes were made. Employers can benefit from creating a “zero tolerance” policy towards harassment where all employees (regardless of rank or pay) know that they can report inappropriate behavior without retaliation. Such policies limit liability by demonstrating that all accusations are serious and no one is “excluded” from the rules.
- Discuss harassment as it relates to COVID. Every employer should adapt its policy on harassment and related training to address COVID-19. Many industries have experienced different forms of harassment (i.e., sexualization surrounding mask wearing and comments about appearance in chats/Zoom). Ignoring the challenges of the COVID-19 workplace only increases liability.
Feel free to reach out to me discuss your organization’s approach to sexual harassment.
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ABOUT THEODORA STRINGHAM
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Theodora Stringham assists individuals, businesses, and organizations with growing successfully while minimizing liability. Focusing on real estate and personnel needs, Ms. Stringham executes sustainable plans for real estate development and employee matters. She provides comprehensive representation for everyday growth issues, including, but not limited to, re-zonings, site plan approvals, eminent domain/valuation concerns, employment discrimination, and disciplinary issues. Ms. Stringham’s scope of representation ranges from identifying potential liability and providing counseling/trainings, all the way through representation at trial.
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