Workplace Sexual Harassment: New York Sets The Standard That Others Should Follow

Accounts of workplace harassment involving employees, entertainers, athletes, and students has been well-publicized in 2018. This publicity has led to the widely-known "#MeToo movement." Some states and municipalities, including New York State ("NYS") and New York City ("NYC"), have responded by enacting relevant legislation. The message has been sent that employers should carefully examine their policies and training programs to both prevent occurrences and address incidents if they do arise.

By October 9, 2018, employers in NYS must create and disseminate sexual harassment policies and implement annual harassment training. Beginning on April 1, 2019, employers in NYC with at least 15 employees must provide annual interactive training for all employees, including interns. Managers and supervisors must receive additional training. The NYS and NYC laws provide specific requirements of what must be included in the newly mandated policies and training. Employers need to ensure that their employee manuals and training are compliant.

Statistics reflect that roughly 75% of women who have been the target of sexual harassment fail to report it. Of those who report harassment, 75% believe that they have been the victim of retaliation. Clearly, too many employees do not trust their employers. Efforts should be made to change this perception. Certainly the NYS and NYC laws aim to accomplish that, and this is an ideal time to update policies and training to correct that perception.

If an employer wants its business to be considered a great place to work, that desire should be projected whenever possible. A perfect place to start is focusing on the language in the employee manual. Employee manuals should make crystal clear what is expected of employees and, whenever possible, why that is so. Employers should demand that all employees are treated with respect - a concept that can be conveyed not only in writing, but by the behavior of a company's leadership. It is also important for employers to review the complaint process. An employer must clearly convey that the complaint process is unbiased, objective and safe. Employees should be made to feel confident that, to the extent possible, the privacy of any individual reporting harassment will be protected.

Employers should embrace workplace harassment training. The training should be presented as something that employers endorse and want for their employees because of the desire to create a great working environment. Employers should make it clear that their organization wants people to come forward if there has been any violation of harassment policies. Training should be utilized by employers as a way to foster a culture of respect.

Live training programs have proven to be very effective tools, and so, should be used when possible. These live training programs present the opportunity to continue to project the desired culture and shift the perception so that employees will report incidents of harassment. While employee manuals are important, actions, of course, also speak volumes. It sends an important message to have senior management and the individual who is responsible for handling harassment complaints introduce and participate in the training programs. This practice reinforces the desired message. The training should be presented as something that the organization wants and not as something that the organization is doing to protect itself. The importance of that distinction cannot be overstated.

An interactive training program affords the employer an opportunity to address specific issues or concerns that would not be possible in a webinar or manual. Participants gain tools that can be used in the workplace and a clear understanding of what needs to be done and why. Interactive programs also present employees with the opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussions on certain topics - a benefit for which webinars are not conducive. Done well, the training can also have a positive impact on morale and employee engagement.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact David Gabor, head of The Wagner Law Group's employment law practice. David is available to talk with you about employee manuals, complaint procedures, and training.