United States: Construing A Continuum Of Harassing Behaviors

I am pleased to share my latest article posted to Bloomberg Law Insights.

We hear many people use the terms "sexual misconduct" or "sexual harassment" to describe a continuum of harassing behaviors. Further, more and more employers are adopting or reissuing "zero tolerance" policies for such collectively defined behaviors.

Of course, we must put an end to the litany of horrific behaviors to which women (and some men) have been subjected. There is no defense to the indefensible.

But we also need to be careful not to use a single label to describe a broad spectrum of unacceptable conduct. For example, we all know that a sexually suggestive comment on someone's appearance is objectively unacceptable. However, if we put that comment in the same category as sexual assault, we risk minimizing the seriousness of the latter by lumping it with the former.

That is part of the danger in zero-tolerance messaging. At first blush, "zero tolerance" sounds good. However, it may be heard as suggesting that, regardless of the severity of the unacceptable conduct, the wrongdoer will be terminated.

This is dangerous because it may discourage victims who just want the problematic behavior to stop from reporting it because they do not want the wrongdoer to be terminated. Yes, she (or he) will not be a silence-breaker but instead will suffer in silence to avoid someone else's suffering more.

Zero-tolerance messaging is dangerous for another reason. A leader who becomes aware of unacceptable conduct by a star performer may not report it for fear that the star will be terminated. The thinking is entirely unacceptable but it is also foreseeable.

So, instead of lumping all behaviors under one label, we need to look at a hierarchy of bad behaviors. Instead of applying corporate capital punishment in every case, we need to take proportionate corrective action based on how bad the conduct is. At a very minimum, the corrective action must be reasonably calculated to deter further unacceptable conduct.

With this background, here is a hierarchy of behaviors that constitute misconduct or harassment for employers to consider when preparing policies, training programs, investigations, and corrective actions.

1. Lack of Respect/Civility

The law does not require that employers be respectful or civil. Yes, an executive can yell and intimidate its employees, so long as it does not target employees for such hostile conduct based on their gender, race, religion or other "protected group" status.

While such unacceptable conduct does not violate the law, it violates human decency. Plus, it is bad for business. Employees who are bullied (as well as those who witness it) underperform, if they do not leave for a better workplace.

Further, disrespectful or uncivil behavior creates fertile soil for harassing behavior that may break the law. One witness who testified before the EEOC Select Task Force on Harassment called incivility the "gateway drug" to harassment.

For all of these reasons, employers are well advised to respond to disrespectful, uncivil and abusive behavior, even if not unlawful. While employees may call such behavior harassment, employers must be careful to avoid the label. It may not be.

2. Gray Areas

Telling a colleague that her or his new suit is "sharp" at a social event is not harassing behavior. Conversely, telling that colleague she looks "hot" in that new suit is harassing behavior. Let's leave what is clear and enter the land of gray.

What if a male colleague tells a female colleague she looks "attractive" in that suit. He may mean "nice," but his use of "attractive" may be heard as "hot." The same word may have very different meanings between the parties to the communication.

We all need to be more thoughtful about what we say and do. If a word can have a sexual or suggestive meaning, then find another word.

As employers, we need to keep in mind that not all cases are as black and white as those we have read or heard about during the last few months. In some of the complaints we receive, the conduct falls into gray areas. In such areas, at least for the first instance of such conduct, proportionate corrective action may consist of non-punitive coaching or counseling.

3. Sexually Harassing but Not "Bad Enough" to Be Illegal

Under federal law, for sexual harassment to be actionable, among other factors, it must be severe or pervasive. Some state or local jurisdictions, such as New York City, have established lower hurdles that must be met for conduct to be actionable.

So, at least under federal law, the following behaviors, in and of themselves, probably do not constitute unlawful conduct:

  • a sexist "joke";
  • an inappropriate comment of a sexual or suggestive nature; or
  • a leer or a gawk

To prevent harm to employees and to avoid legal liability, employers should respond to sexually harassing behavior, even if the behavior in and of itself is not unlawful. In an employer's preventive efforts, this message must resonate loud and clear. An employee does not have to violate the law to violate the employer's policy.

However, in taking corrective action in these circumstances, employers should avoid the legal label. Use "sexually harassing behavior" rather than "sexual harassment."

But, even here, distinctions must be made within the category of "sexually harassing behavior." For example:

  • If an executive makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse than if a lower-level employee

does the same. Power magnifies the wrong.

  • If a lower-level employee makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse if he has done so before and been warned not to do it again.

The label we apply to this category of unacceptable conduct does not alone dictate the nature of appropriate corrective action. What is proportionate also may depend on myriad other factors.

4. Sexual Harassment

Some conduct, in and of itself, constitutes sexual harassment.

The clearest example is when a supervisor or other higher-ranking employee conditions the granting of any term, condition, or benefit of employment on a subordinate's submission to sexual advances or punishes the subordinate for not submitting to them. This is often what is referred to as "quid pro quo" harassment, that is, "this for that."

Another example may be use of the "C" word. Some courts have found that saying the "N" word once may create a racially hostile work environment. A court very well could find that using the "C" word once may create a sexually hostile work environment.

If conduct is or may be sexual harassment in and of itself, the proportionate corrective action is almost always termination. I say "almost always" rather than "always" because there could be an exception, such as if the employee's supervisor used the same hate word and the subordinate said he went "along to get along" with his supervisor. In these circumstances, the supervisor should be terminated. The case of the subordinate may be less clear.

While the severity of the conduct in these cases must inform the level of corrective action, employers still may wish to stay away from the legal label. Employers can do what is right for their employees without necessarily making what may be argued to be an admission of liability.

5. Sexual Assault

In some high-profile cases, we are dealing with more than the civil wrong of sexual harassment. We are dealing with a criminal wrong: sexual assault.

If, after an appropriate investigation, an employer concludes that there has been a sexual assault, there is only one proportionate remedy: termination.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize that law enforcement may have elected not to pursue the matter does not mean the employer should ignore the matter. While the determination by law enforcement may be one factor an employer may consider, it rarely will be determinative.

Even where an employer concludes there was a sexual assault, such as grabbing a woman's breasts or genitals, the employer still is better off avoiding legal labels and describing the behaviors.

Conclusion

While there is a continuum of bad behavior, each category does not exist in isolation. We need to recognize that each level of the hierarchy of bad behavior creates a cultural environment where the next level of bad behavior is more likely to occur. Just as lack of civility can be the "gateway" to sexual harassment, sexual harassment can be the gateway to sexual assault. We must have zero tolerance to bad behavior but with a proportionate response to how bad the behavior is so that the bad behavior is not repeated or becomes worse.

This article is not legal advice and does not apply to specific factual situations.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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