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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Hot Potato #MeToo Social Media Post Concern Employers

With the high-profile sexual harassment #MeToo movement it is a good idea to develop your employer’s plan. The movement features women posting #MeToo on social media, or in high profile TV spots, to indicate they were sexually harassed at some point in their lives. The goal of this hashtag is to draw attention to the magnitude of these previously unreported problems.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful under Title VII. However, being a “total jerk” or “just creepy” is not itself illegal or actionable unless that supervisor, manager, Hollywood producer, is just a total jerk or just creepy to women only. A #MeToo message implies that her boss may have sexually harassed her which may put your organization at risk.

Now that you, wearing your employer hat, have seen the post, what comes next? Bury your head in the sand? Ignore it? Or Be Proactive? Take action today like Speaker Ryan to nip it in the bud?

First Question: What does your Anti-Harassment Policy say?

Anti-harassment policies should include specific reporting mechanisms for employees who believe they have been subjected to unlawful harassment or discrimination. There should be two distinct reporting procedures such as call 1-800 number, or contact a specific HR representative or specified high ranking company official by title. Make sure you are specific to debunk a report that never was made. Once a complaint is submitted, the policy should provide for a prompt contact back to the employee (within 48 hours) and then a thorough (legally defensible) investigation into the allegations. There is much more I could say on the legally defensible stuff but you get the point.

 But I have never included in a policy for one of my employer clients that has a “vague post on a social network” as a designated reporting. Most “put their head in the sand” employers might take the position that “no report was made” and thus no duty to investigate. And there is in fact an affirmative defense in the law to the claims in cases involving harassment by a supervisor that does  not involve a tangible employment action if it can show that: (1) it took reasonable steps to “prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior;” and (2) the plaintiff-employee “unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise – employer published a policy with training.”

The Better Approach is to Seize a Teachable Moment

In addition to potential harassment claims, EEOC Charges, Lawsuits, totally distracted workforce, the #MeToo post reveals that your employees might benefit from anti-harassment training. Employers should strive to ensure that employees understand its anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and reporting procedures, as well as its commitment to preventing and correcting unlawful behavior in the workplace. The best way to do that is video training, smartphone is OK, with a request for all employees to again sign the policy. Also, great time to update your policy with a workplace civility anti-bulling policy as well. Employer training should not be focused solely on avoiding liability but also should be designed to proactively eliminate harassing and disrespectful conduct, and create a workplace environment where it is all about respect. In fact, let’s start a #MeTooItsAllAboutRespect movement!
Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA He can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com