Hot Seat Recap: What Does It Mean to be Sexually Harassed in the Workplace?

Dara Barney

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Everyone talks about sexual harassment and the workplace. But, what are we doing about it and how can we prevent it?

In “Sexual Harassment in Workers’ Comp: Ignorance, Stupidity or Evil?” co-hosted by Bob Wilson, President and CEO of WorkersCompensation.com and David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of Florida’s Office of Judges of Compensation Claims, that is what we set to find out.

Florida-based panelists Artemis Emslie, CEO of MyMatrixx; Deborah Watkins, CEO of Care Bridge International; and Christine Sensenig, employment law attorney and partner at Hultman Sensenig + Joshi, took to their respective podiums to dive in.

“What does is mean exactly when you are sexually harassed? Harassment is based on the person receiving the conduct, hearing the comment, and how they feel about it. It is their perspective that matters. Harassment is also based on ‘welcome behavior,’” Sensenig said.

“There’s a difference between ‘you look nice today’ and looking someone looking you up and down and saying ‘you look niiiiice today.’”

But it is also prudent to look at the other side, where sensitivity can take its toll. She mentioned a woman in Great Britain who was offended that she received a good morning greeting, and her male coworkers did not, proving she was singled out as a woman.

“Awareness/training are key, and consistency with messages on what is appropriate and what isn’t is important,” Emslie said.

Wilson brought up ignorance vs. intent in the workplace, and what that means for employers and employees.

“You may or may not know if your coworker sitting next to you has experienced sexual harassment in the past… maybe even joking around, unintentionally, can be very hurtful,” Watkins said. “Even domestic issues in businesses come up. I had a scenario where a spouse came on site, threating the employee, etc. All kinds of things can happen and be misunderstood. As an employer, you have to know how to handle that.”

Judge Langham referenced a woman from a past case, who had just been introduced into an all-male workspace. She arrived to the locker rooms an hour later than the males in efforts to avoid issues and building a new female locker room. The new employee began finding polaroid photos of male genitals in her locker, and it was decided a lineup would be implemented to identify the men with their photos. Judge Langham emphasized that this is where emotion takes over the brain, and how important it is to take a step back, and follow the right steps in an investigation.

“A thorough and fair investigation is important to everyone. Everyone should be treated with respect. Separate the two, initially. I’ve even had a client who went as far as paying one employee to work from a different space. It all depends on the employer, and who is completing the investigation. Is it internal? Do you hire a third party/employment lawyer?” Sensenig said.

Emslie said while everyone has a voice, it is also important to consider all sides. Not just the victim and the accuser, but others around them. Maybe the cubicle group who heard your gossip about that hot night out had some innocent bystanders who didn’t want to be educated on the matter.

“One scenario doesn’t mean it isn’t just one person. It isn’t just one office, there are remote workers etc. It is so easy to download and share a photo on social media,” Watkins said.

Wilson asked about the current cultural climate, the attention to victimization, people harassed in Hollywood, the media, etc.

“I am concerned about that for women. We put a lot of effort into developing our careers. We do know false accusations occur, and are made purely on a leverage basis… but that can damage someone from a reputational standpoint for the rest of their careers from either side. That question of risk comes up all the time, whether you are a male or female member of the exec team,” Watkins said.

Wilson mentioned a woman in a leadership role out of the Silicon Valley in California who has recently been accused of improper behavior with male and female employees.

For tools that can be used to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, Emslie said specific onboard training would be important on what the actual act of sexual harassment is, what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation, and what guidelines to follow. Employers need to keep their doors open for communication, and investigate when it becomes necessary to do so.

Male and female employees alike are sometimes left ignored and confused on what behaviors should and shouldn’t be allowed, Watkins said. Again, what qualifies as sexual harassment, and what are some REAL approaches to implement for the employees to resolve it?

Sensenig said flipping the script, and coaching employees in role play scenarios could help get people more comfortable in talking about this difficult subject.

“As a leader in my company, it is my responsibility to keep my employees safe, and everyone is watching me,” Watkins said.

Judge Langham asked about the privacy issue with these complaints, and how to make teachable moments out of them.

The teaching moments should be very generalized, and the company can also focus on what their core culture is about, which is, in part, ideally preventing these types of things from happening, Emslie said.

Sensenig concluded that all the panelists agree it is about taking a few steps back, LISTENING, and make sure we are in better positions to pay attention, i.e. from phones, distractors, etc.

“Human capital drives the customer experience, right? There are people who sit behind that, and strong leadership to learn and understand all the right moves is really important. Company culture and branding are a big deal,” Emslie said, emphasizing the responsibility leaders, execs, management teams, etc. should have a hold on.