Sexual harassment suits are on the rise faster than other employment discrimination suits, be they suits by the EEOC or by private plaintiffs. Some of the ones we have discussed here are pretty extreme, involving physical touching and worse. And some involve verbal abuse and harassment which take place over a period of time.
What all employers should be on guard against is a working environment that, while not having experienced any complaints of verbal or physical harassment, nonetheless are perhaps breeding grounds for future suits because of a “good old boys” environment. While this is more likely in an industry that is traditionally male-dominated, this could take the form in any workplace of a fraternity-like group of workers who “tease” female colleagues and/or exclude women from their “club,” to hostility to women evidenced by verbal abuse and harassment that may not rise to the level of “severe” but may still be “pervasive” and not merely episodic.
Female employees may not (yet) have complained, but eventually a tipping point or critical mass may be reached and you will find yourself being sued and being shocked. Just ask the traditional “old boys clubs” of banks and brokerages (and other bastions of male privilege) which have been the subject of numerous lawsuits over the last dozen or more years.
New Lawsuit Against The Old Boys
Yesterday, a suit was filed in Texas by a woman who alleged that the executives of real estate investment trust Weingarten Realty Investors maintained an "elitist ‘good-old-boy’ network" that was "designed to demean and discriminate against women in the workplace. The environment was both subjectively and objectively hostile to women." It was alleged that they frequently berated, embarrassed or mistreated female employees, while also paying them less than male co-workers.
Plaintiff complained to HR, and was told by the HR director that if she pursued her complaint it would be a "nail in your coffin" and that “she could lose her job, financial safety, and that the health and well-being of her new baby would be at risk.” She claims that she was fired by email while she was on medical leave following the premature birth of her daughter and recovery from a rare disorder and complications during pregnancy.
Dissolve The Good Old Boys Network
We have the same advice for “good old boys” that we have for all employers – but we emphasize it more.
1. Above all, be vigilant that the good old boys do not inhabit your workplace. Maintain a fair and consistent workplace; employees who feel that they are treated fairly and respectfully are less likely to complain or sue.
2. Draft and maintain an up-to-date employment manual, which incorporates all of your companies policies and procedures, and keeps current with the ever-changing law. Make it known to your employees that you have a zero-tolerance anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy in your company, which you will enforce fairly and consistently. And be serious about it.
3. Conduct periodic training programs for all managers and employees in anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies. Let all employees know where and who to go to register a complaint, so as to give an aggrieved employee recourse if he/she experiences discrimination or feels aggrieved. Treat all employee complaints seriously and confidentially, and investigate all claims promptly and even-handedly.