Companies have duty to stop sexual harassment

Pamela Stevens, Staff Writer

The Feb. 2 killing of Caroline Nosal outside the Metro Market on Cottage Grove Road in Madison has brought a renewed focus on workplace sexual harassment and how victims should respond. A former co-worker, Christopher O’Kroley, has been charged with shooting Nosal. According to the criminal complaint, O’Kroley had been suspended and then fired from the store after Nosal complained that he was harassing her.

It is stories like this that cause many women to wonder if reporting harassment of any nature in the workplace is worth the risks involved.

Many victims of harassment worry about retaliation, either from the harasser or from their company, which could lead to becoming the topic of workplace gossip, losing their job, or even having difficulty finding new employment if it is known that they have previously made a complaint.

Even though awareness of sexual harassment has been increased greatly over the years, it still exists in the workplace and finding an acceptable resolution to these cases can be difficult.

Experts say it is important to remember that incidents like Nosal’s killing are extremely rare. According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one out of five workplace homicide victims are women (in 2010, the last year finalized statistics are available). However, 39 percent of these female victims’ assailants were relatives or personal acquaintances, while this was the case for only three percent of male victims.

It is also important for employees to understand that there are laws in place to protect them and that it is also in the best interest of their employers to works towards keeping their employees safe.

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure that they create work environments that are free from harassment of any nature, which can be discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are also laws in place to deter employers from attempting to disregard their responsibilities to their employees. In the court case of Meriter Bank v. Vinson (1986), the courts established that an employer is absolutely liable for sexual harassment, whether or not the employer knew or should have known about it. This is only one of many motivators for a company to do right by those it employs.

According to Nancy Johnson, Madison College business law instructor, it is in a company’s best interest to ensure that a company provides a safe and productive work environment. Regardless of the potential threat of litigation if a harassment suit is filed, a company hires its employees, quite simply, to do a job. If an employee is being a harassed, this employee would be a distracted, fearful and thus unproductive, which isn’t in the company’s best interest.

To ensure that this does not happen, proactive companies create policies and offer training to their supervisory staff members. In doing so they are creating an environment that doesn’t allow for inappropriate behaviors or comments to thrive since they will not be tolerated by the culture of the company and this attitude will permeate the entire work environment.

If a company wants to be successful in the business world, they need to do right by both their employees as well as their customers and/or clients. To gain customers and to attract the best employees, a company needs to gain and maintain a solid reputation of being a ‘good corporate citizen.’ So when it comes to following harassment laws and creating better workplace environments, Johnson believes, “We’re moving in a better direction. Keep in mind, what is most compelling, is that it’s not about being nice, it’s just good business.”

When an individual is deliberating on whether or not to report harassment to either their immediate supervisor or to human resources, he or she must ultimately do what is right for themselves. A considerable portion of our lives is spent at our place of employment, and therefore we should be able to find at least some happiness while there, not having to look over our shoulders, worried that someone will be harassing us. If you decide to report the harassment, know that your employer has a legal obligation to investigate the claim. This potentially could result in others realizing that you were the person who reported it, but may also end the harassment.

If you feel that your employer wouldn’t handle your grievance appropriately, then you always have the option of deciding to leave your place of employment. There are many employment opportunities out there and if a company is willing to lose talent due to treating them poorly, then they will also be a company that will fail to become or remain successful. Thankfully, tragedies like the Nosal case are rare and should not deter anyone who feels that they are being harassed in the workplace from reporting such behavior to their supervisors or human resources.