12 Risk Factors for Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

December 5, 2017
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Top Risk Factors for Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

The mounting sexual harassment claims against Harvey Weinstein have made sexual harassment front page news. As all employers should be aware, workplace harassment is not confined to the entertainment industry.

12 Risk Factors For Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

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According to one study, one in three women between the ages of 18-34 has been sexually harassed at work. Of those who said they had experienced sexual harassment, only 30 percent reported it.

Other forms of workplace harassment are also prevalent, including racial and ethnicity-based harassment. In one study, researchers found that 70 percent of the workers surveyed suffered some form of verbal harassment, while 45 percent experienced exclusionary behaviors. The study also found that 69 percent of respondents reported witnessing at least one ethnically-harassing behavior in the past two years.

Harassment Can Lead to Liability for Employers

Harassment suits are among the most frequent sources of employment liability for New York and New Jersey businesses. Even when claims are unsuccessful, the cost of defending the suit and any public relations fallout can seriously impact a company’s bottom line.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it received more than 28,000 harassment claims from workers in 2016 alone, which represented one-third of the employment discrimination charges that agency received that year. Of those claims, harassment on the basis of sex or race was the most prevalent, followed by disability, age, national origin, and religion. Harassment is likely more prevalent than the EEOC statistics suggest. The agency itself acknowledges that many claims (90 percent) are unreported due to fear of retaliation, embarrassment, and other factors. Nonetheless, the agency still recovered $125.5 million on behalf of harassment victims from 2010-2016. 

Risk Factors Linked to Workplace Harassment

When it comes to sexual harassment, not all workplaces are equal. According to a 2016 report by the EEOC, there are several risk factors that make a company ripe for improper conduct. They include:

  • Homogenous Workforces: The risk of harassment increases where there is a lack of diversity in the workplace, i.e. a male-dominated office environment.
  • Workplaces Where Some Workers Do Not Conform to Workplace Norms: Harassment is more likely to occur where a minority of workers do not conform to workplace norms based on societal stereotypes, i.e. a woman who challenges gender norms by being “tough enough” to do a job in a traditionally male-dominated environment.
  • Cultural and Language Differences in the Workplace: Workplaces that are extremely diverse also pose a risk factor for harassment, particularly when there has been a recent influx of individuals with different cultures or nationalities into a workplace, or where a workplace contains significant “blocs” of workers from different cultures.
  • Coarsened Social Discourse Outside the Workplace: Events and crude social discourse that happen outside the workplace may make harassment inside a workplace more common or perceived as more acceptable, i.e. backlash against Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
  • Workforces with Many Young Workers: Workers in their first or second jobs may be less aware of laws and workplace norms, i.e. what constitutes appropriate workplace conduct.
  • Workplaces with “High Value” Employees: Workforces in which some employees are perceived to be particularly valuable to the company may foster harassment because senior management may be reluctant to challenge the behavior of their high-value employees.
  • Workplaces with Significant Power Disparities: Workplaces where there are executives and administrative support staff, factories where there are plant managers and assembly line workers, and all branches of the military provide fertile ground for harassment due to the vast power disparities.
  • Workplaces that Rely on Customer Service or Client Satisfaction: Harassment may be tolerated by workers and employers in workplaces where an employee’s compensation may be directly tied to customer satisfaction or client service.
  • Workplaces Where Work is Monotonous or Consists of Low-Intensity Tasks: In jobs where workers are not actively engaged or have “time on their hands,” harassing or bullying behavior may become a way to vent frustration or avoid boredom.
  • Isolated Workspaces: In jobs where the workers are physically isolated or have few opportunities to work with others, harassers have easy access to their victims, and there generally are no witnesses to the harassment.
  • Workplace Cultures that Tolerate or Encourage Alcohol Consumption: Because alcohol reduces social inhibitions and impairs judgment, workplace cultures that tolerate alcohol consumption during and around work hours tend to be at greater risk for harassment.
  • Decentralized Workplaces: Decentralized workplaces, such as retail stores, that feature limited communication between organizational levels may foster a climate in which harassment may go unchecked.

Of course, the above risk factors are not exhaustive, and the existence of any one risk factor does not necessarily mean that sexual harassment is occurring. However, they do provide a useful tool for assessing potential problem areas and taking proactive measures to reduce harassment in the workplace.

Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Sean Dias, at 201-806-3364.

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