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Perspective

Office Romance and Sexual Harassment - Knowing the Difference

February 14, 2019| Von Mindy Pollack | EPLI | English

Region: North America

Is the #MeToo movement influencing workplace behaviors? 

Sexual Harassment charges filed with the EEOC are up 13.6% in the past year, even as overall employee charges are trending downward.1 More than one in four workers say that recent allegations of sexual harassment have made them warier of office romance, and 30% of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman.2 It looks like #MeToo is having an effect.
 
Still, romance is not dead at the office. Over half (52%) of workers in one survey admitted to having at least one office romance.3 Will those workplace relationships bloom or explode into sexual harassment claims? A lot will depend on how men and women define harassment. And, given how differently these two sexes view certain behaviors, both employers and EPLI carriers have cause for concern. 
 
When asked if specific workplace conduct is always harassment, the male vs. female perspective on some issues is as far apart as, well, Mars and Venus. This gap is highlighted in a 2018 Brookings Institution survey.4  

The spectrum runs from having lunch and a drink to asking for sexual favors and persistent unwanted attention. Inviting a colleague for lunch is, for most, a normal and innocent part of the work world. But something different happens when we get to sexual jokes and then jump to more personal and intrusive actions.

 
According to a 2018 survey on the American family conducted by The Brookings Institution, 49% (roughly half) of men surveyed believe that asking for sexual favors is not always harassment, compared to 71% of women who are ready to contact HR. Of the three behaviors which 50% of women viewed as harassment, men passed that halfway mark for only one: persistent, unwanted attention. 
 
What is the big takeaway? Employers can send the message that sexual harassment is prohibited, but until we have a common understanding of what is unacceptable conduct in the workplace, there won’t be much progress made toward a safe workplace.
 
A clear handbook policy that makes sexual harassment grounds for discipline is only the first step - much more is needed. The definitional gap should be closed in order to truly reduce the risk of office strife and lawsuits. Businesses need to educate their managers and employees on what type of behavior crosses the line into harassment. 
 
How can employers train managers and subordinates to share a common understanding of what is right or wrong in the workplace? Many employers already have the tools they need to begin training and reducing the risk - but they don’t realize it. The solution comes with their Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) policy and services. 
 
When a business buys EPLI protection through a Businessowners or General Liability policy endorsement, or stand-alone EPLI policy, free online training and legal help is available along with the coverage. Sexual harassment web-based training educates employees on what is and what is not sexual harassment. When questions arise, a complimentary Hotline service offers employers the opportunity to talk with experienced employment attorneys. Insureds are entitled to these benefits when they buy EPLI protection.
 
If the EPLI insurer does not offer these services, it’s time for the insured to find a new carrier. And, if the insured has not yet leveraged these educational services, it’s time to start. Check the materials sent with the insurance policy or ask your agent for the access information. If the insured has not yet purchased EPLI, it’s time to contact an agent. Standard Businessowners and General Liability policies exclude employment-related claims. Without an EPLI endorsement or policy, a business is without protection and these critical services. 
 
For employers located in a handful of states, sexual harassment training is not a discretionary matter. It is required by law. If the business has employees in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine or New York, training is now or will soon be required for many employers. The online training available with an EPLI policy can help employers comply with the law and reduce claims. 
 
Workplace romance can be safe, so don’t be afraid to have lunch with a colleague. Even in the #MeToo era, there are some shared views on acceptable behavior. Men and women may never reach total agreement on the definition of sexual harassment (that Mars and Venus thing), but we can get a lot closer. And speaking of getting closer, have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!
 

 

Endnotes
  1. Comments of EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic at American Conference Institute EPLI seminar on January 29, 2019.
  2. 2018 Vault Office Romance Survey; Survey of sexual harassment in the workplace, LeanIn.Org.
  3. 2018 Vault Office Romance Survey, (see note 2).
  4. The American Family Survey (2018), The Brookings Institution.

 

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