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Fifty women have come forward claiming sexual harassment from Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood producer and former studio executive. The allegations of harassment date back 20 years and Hollywood turned a blind eye to this abhorrent behavior. In Fiscal 2017, Fox News has spent $50M In Sexual Harassment Settlements and Expenses. Hours ago, a producer for the Bachelorette is suing Warner Bros. studio for sexual harassment and hostile work environment experienced in 2016. A famed New Orleans chef left his restaurant upon claims of sexual harassment. Netflix has recently cancelled House of Cards due to a sexual harassment claim filed again actor Kevin Spacey.

Is harassment and particularly sexual harassment something new or have we been ignoring this behavior for a long time? Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination as defined by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based race, color, sex, religion and national origin. If sex (gender) is protected then the recent Hollywood incidents represent a violation of this law.
There are two types of sexual harassment as defined below.

Quid Pro Quo includes unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors in exchange for something else, i.e. promotion, not losing your job, increase in pay, etc.

Hostile Work Environment harassment, has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.
When behavior is unwanted, not requested, and repeated it may be considered sexual harassment. A single request would not be considered sexual harassment unless it is severe, as evidenced by some of the allegations recently surfaced in Hollywood. Repeated requests after a person has indicated they are not interested may constitute sexual harassment.

One sexual joke or off-hand remark is not considered illegal conduct. The key difference is when a comment is followed with a sexual reference because of an employee’s sex and it creates a hostile work environment.

Examples that are not workplace sexual harassment:
“That’s a nice outfit.”
“You should dress more professionally.”

Examples of potential sexual harassment:
“That skirt really shows off your behind.”
“You should wear tighter clothes to impress your boss.”

Consensual behavior is mutually desired and agreed-upon with both parties willingly participating. While it’s not considered sexual harassment if the relationship is consensual, situations can occur once the relationship has ended. Once an individual has made it clear that they are no longer romantically interested, the same laws apply to protect against both types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Companies are scrambling to understand and communicate what harassment is and isn’t to protect their employees, customers and suppliers in the workplace. What should a company do?
– Organizations must communicate their values to employees and stakeholders regarding this topic.
– Organizations need a clear policy and plan regarding what to do and who to go to if harassment occurs in the workplace.
– Organizations must train employees regarding appropriate behavior in the workplace, and their policy regarding reporting an occurrence. Remember, different generations may perceive this topic differently based on their business and life experience.
– Organizations can be proactive thanking people for stepping forward to bring occurrences of harassment to their attention to let others know that it is important for them to do the same if they witness something inappropriate.
– Once a harassment situation is brought to the attention of leaders/HR, you must immediately investigate the situation. If you are uncertain what to do and how to investigate reach out to an HR professional or attorney for guidance to ensure you take necessary steps and come to the right conclusion for the employee and company.
– Although not legally required, many employers have policies in place that prohibit dating between co-workers/fraternization. Based on the type of organization, employee and culture, you may consider adding this to your employee handbook.
You may be scratching your head as to the title for this What the Hecht? Just being friendly, hmmm?

I recently experienced two situations that heightened my awareness of this topic. Last evening, I attended a networking event. I saw a colleague of mine, a man who has referred me and my business to several businesses. I consider him an acquaintance and we greeted each other with a hug. It was very casual and consensual, and we chatted for a few moments over hors’ d’oeuvres and a glass of wine.

One week ago, I was standing in my kitchen with the light on at night. A neighbor, who can be unruly, must have seen me through the window and he knocked on my door, peered through my window and said, “I just want to be friendly”. I felt as though my space was being invaded and my safety was in question. I said through the door “please go away”. He turned around and walked away and everything was fine.

This experience brought to light questions that I would want to ask if an individual brought an incident of harassment to my attention.
– What was the context of the situation?
– How close was the individual and did they “invade your space”?
– Did you feel unsafe or threatened?
– Did you tell this person to stop?

Whether my neighbor or any of the other public figures accused of sexual harassment were “just being friendly” is no excuse for inappropriate behavior.

The good news is sexual harassment is now in the public eye. Change happens when a spotlight shines on the situation.