#SexualHarassment #MeToo

A new article in Bloomberg details an unusual (to put it diplomatically) strategy that some male executives in the financial sector are using to avoid claims of sexual harassment:

No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.

In fact, as a wealth adviser put it, just hiring a woman these days is “an unknown risk.” What if she took something he said the wrong way?

Across Wall Street, men are adopting controversial strategies for the #MeToo era and, in the process, making life even harder for women.

[ . . . ]

A manager in infrastructure investing said he won’t meet with female employees in rooms without windows anymore; he also keeps his distance in elevators. A late-40-something in private equity said he has a new rule, established on the advice of his wife, an attorney: no business dinner with a woman 35 or younger.

The changes can be subtle but insidious, with a woman, say, excluded from casual after-work drinks, leaving male colleagues to bond, or having what should be a private meeting with a boss with the door left wide open.

The full article itself is well worth a read.  It details the results of Bloomberg’s anonymous interviews with over 30 financial sector leaders about how these leaders are conducting themselves in light of the #MeToo movement.  Bloomberg’s reporters, Gillian Tan and Katia Porzecanski, conclude that many of the individuals they surveyed are “spooked” about the possibility of being caught up in sexual harassment or sexual assault allegations and, as a result, are “walking on eggshells” at work.

The apparent solution that some executives are adopting, as relayed by Bloomberg, is to simply remove women from the equation, in an effort to avoid any allegations.  The results, described above, appear to lead to per se or de facto exclusion of female colleagues and subordinates from many opportunities.

At the risk of stating the obvious: this “solution” is no solution at all.  In fact, this misguided attempt to avoid liability for sexual harassment risks creating liability for sex discrimination. 

Indeed, systematically removing women from hiring and mentorship opportunities and meetings or treating female subordinates differently from male subordinates creates serious risks of sex discrimination claims under both the disparate treatment and disparate impact theories where the treatment at question rises to the level of an adverse employment action.  And if the exclusion is sufficiently severe or pervasive, it may even create sexual harassment liability under the hostile workplace theory.

In short: don’t follow the advice of these anonymous executives to reduce workplace harassment.  Instead, participate in regular anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings, foster a respectful and professional workplace, and don’t use sex as a basis to make decisions in the workplace.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the lead agency that administers federal anti-discrimination laws, has publicly announced its preliminary data for Fiscal Year 2018 regarding charges of sexual harassment in the workplace.

And while the data are still preliminary, they are striking, perhaps reflecting the growth and influence of the #MeToo movement.

In several key metrics, the EEOC announced it had seen increasing results relating to charges of sexual harassment in the workplace in FY 2018:

  • the EEOC filed 41 lawsuits against employers that included claims of sexual harassment, an increase of over 50% from the previous year;
  • the EEOC obtained $70 million for employees through enforcement action, an increase of over 47% (or $22.5 million) from the previous year; and
  • discrimination charges filed by employees with the EEOC that included sexual harassment allegations increased by 12% from the previous year.

This uptick in activity related to workplace sexual harassment is part of a longer-term emphasis by the EEOC.  For example, the agency launched a training program in October, 2017, following on the heels of the agency’s extensive task force report on workplace harassment that it issued in 2016.  In addition, the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2021 includes preventing systemic workplace harassment as one of its six substantive area priorities.

In light of the EEOC’s intensifying focus on sexual harassment and the increase in sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC, employers should consider reviewing and updating their anti-harassment training programs, policies, and practices.