The #MeToo movement has been pouring out of practically every industry and has created buzzing conversations with friends, coworkers and family. Navigator Taproom hosted a special event March 1 called “Your company in the era of #MeToo,” a talk hosted by Emily Wessel Farr and attended by an intimate group of business owners and members of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.
An employment attorney for Ardent Law, LLC, Wessel Farr specializes in small business litigation, advising employers of businesses large and small on how to prevent harassment claims of all kinds, sexual harassment being the most prevalent.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and dissolution of his production company, companies are more cautious than ever about avoiding costly lawsuits and dealing with “bad actors,” employees reported for sexually harassing or creating conflict with their co-workers.
“The ‘boys will be boys’ era is over,” said Wessel Farr at the event. “Men need to be men.”
Wessel Farr discussed how the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) affects businesses with 1 or more employees, clearly defining the difference between “employer” and “employee” and how positions of power can lead to intimidation, misunderstandings and eventually harassment claims.
What is Harassment?
“Harassment can be an off-color joke or comment on someone’s physical appearance that offends a co worker. If someone so much as overhears a comment and is offended, they may have a claim.” Men can get harassed as well, Wessel Farr states; it can be as simple as a few women discussing “how hot” a male co-worker is in the workplace.
What is Employer Liability?
The state Supreme Court found that under the IHRA, an employer can be “strictly liable” for sexual harassment: Strict liability means that “the employer is liable for sexual harassment regardless of whether the employer knew of the offending conduct and regardless of whether the conduct is quid pro quo sexual harassment or ‘hostile environment’ sexual harassment,” Wessel Farr clarified.
The beginning of a harassment lawsuit can depend on how quickly and effectively an employer responds to harassment claims by an employee, she added, and whether that employee feels heard or that the matter is resolved.
How Should Employers Deal with Harassment Claims?
As quickly as possible, Wessel Farr said. “Train your supervisors to understand that to their employees, they speak for the company.” Employers must avoid “willful blindness” situations, ignoring claims and hoping that they’ll quietly go away.
Here are three ways that employers should deal with harassment claims in order to avoid lawsuits Wessel Farr shared:
- Investigate claims immediately: “Oftentimes, it’s not about what happens, so much as what you do about it.”
- Open-Door Policy: “Creating an atmosphere of transparency and open communication creates a happy and healthy work environment.”
- Response: “Make sure you work to resolve issues ASAP… Have a plan and execute it. Don’t wait and see what happens.”
Wessel Farr recommended creating a company handbook with the help of a lawyer, which establishes a healthy workplace culture and addresses the various forms of harassment to dissuade employees from becoming “bad actors.” Even if a claim goes to court, documenting your actions is helpful in getting a case dismissed.
But to get past terms such as “liability” and “claims,” Emily stressed that the most important thing is that all of your employees feel they can approach their supervisors and employers. They should feel safe and valued in the workplace and hopeful that #MeeToo situations no longer occur.