Scandals, lies and the bottom line: We talk to a local expert about how we need to approach cases of sexual harassment in our workplaces.

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Political figures. Captains of industry. Movie moguls. Trusted television icons. The recent wave of sexual harassment claims have taken down men of grand stature across all industries. Unfortunately, sexual harassment isn’t just fodder for the front page news. It happens in offices and workplaces across the nation and here in DFW. So what should we do if it happens to us, or one of our co-workers? Or what if we’re a business owner and it happens in our workplace? I recently got the chance to speak with Cheryl J. Lopez, CCP, PHR, SHRM-PHR, Senior Vice President of WhitneySmith Company, a Fort-Worth based full-service human resources consulting firm providing professional assistance in a variety of human resource disciplines, about several issues surrounding this uncomfortable issue.

Mark Fadden (MF): “What is sexual harassment? Does it have to involve sex?”

Cheryl Lopez (CL): “Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and/or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or is so frequent or severe that it unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. Unlawful harassment can be based on race, color, religion, sex (with or without sexual conduct), national origin, age, disability or genetic information.”

MF: “What if the harassment isn't sexual in nature, but still gender-related? Is that still considered sexual harassment?”

CL: “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex or gender and sexual harassment includes pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

MF: “Can I be sexually harassed by someone that is my same gender?”

CL: “Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex. Also the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the unwelcome, offensive conduct.”

MF: “Is it considered sexual harassment only when it's between a supervisor and his or her subordinate?”

CL: “Sexual harassment is not only between a supervisor and his or her subordinate. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a coworker, an agent of the employer, or a non-employee such as a guest, vendor, contractor or customer of the employer.”

MF: “What should I do if I believe I’m being sexually harassed at work? When should I inform my HR department? What are my legal options? Should I hire an attorney?”

CL: “It is always helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. An employee should follow the employer’s written policy or procedures for filing a workplace complaint. The company’s policy should be very clear on prompt reporting and the various avenues available for filing a complaint such as to the Human Resources Department, or a department manager, or the Chief Executive of the organization. It’s always recommended and expected that an employee follow the company policy to allow the employer an opportunity to conduct an investigation into the allegations and to have a chance to correct the problem before the employee seeks legal counsel. If the employee follows established policy and the problem is not resolved by the employer or the resolution is not satisfactory to the employee, the employee may seek legal counsel or may choose to contact the EEOC. It is a personal choice.”

MF: “Is my employer legally responsible for an employee sexual harassing other employees? If I’m an employer, what should I do to minimize the impact / chance of sexual harassment in my workplace?”

CL: “An employer is always legally responsible for harassment by a supervisor if an adverse employment action occurred because supervisors have been empowered by the organization to make decisions that can affect employment status of employees such as hiring, firing, promotions, demotions, reassignments, compensation decisions, etc. If the harassment did not lead to an adverse employment action, the employer is still liable unless an affirmative defense is established. An employer may be able to avoid liability or limit damages by establishing an affirmative defense which must show (1) the company exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior; and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the company or to avoid harm otherwise. This is why a well-written harassment policy and harassment training for employees and supervisors are critical to minimizing the impact of harassment in the workplace.”

MF: “Your firm helps organizations with sexual harassment training. Can you provide more info/examples about how you do that?”

CL: “WhitneySmith Company regularly assists organizations with harassment training though onsite or offsite employee and supervisory trainings sessions. Our training consultants present harassment training using training slides, videos and handout material to ensure employees and supervisors receive comprehensive training on the types of unlawful harassment, various forms of harassing behavior or acts, steps and avenues for reporting workplace harassment, and the responsibilities of employees and supervisors in maintaining an environment free from workplace harassment. It is imperative for supervisors to receive in-depth training on all forms of unlawful harassment including retaliation because an employer is automatically liable for the actions of supervisors if they take an adverse action against an employee who has complained about harassment.”

MF: “Anything else you’d like to include about sexual harassment in the workplace and/or how your firm can help organizations navigate this difficult issue?”

CL: “The key to eliminating workplace harassment is prevention and the key to prevention is communication. Employers should establish, distribute and enforce a policy prohibiting harassment, outline an effective process for making complaints and take immediate and appropriate action when an employee files a complaint. Annual training on harassment should include a clear discussion of the company’s policy on harassment and retaliation. WhitneySmith can assist any employer with the development of an effective and legally compliant harassment policy and with the communication of the policy through onsite or offsite group and/or individual training sessions for employees and supervisors. Additionally, our firm is often called upon to serve as an outside third-party investigator for workplace harassment complaints.”