By Kevin Green and Jesse Coleman

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A recent editorial authored by two female doctors in the Canadian Medical Association Journal proclaims that, “in the era of #MeToo, it is time for physicians to acknowledge that the medical profession is not immune to bullying, harassment and discrimination, and act to abolish these behaviours.”  #MeToo and the Medical Profession (Aug. 20, 2018).  While the #MeToo movement had unprecedented success increasing accountability for sexual misconduct among entertainment, political, and academic institutions, the healthcare industry did not receive the same attention. Recent findings demonstrate, however, that the #MeToo movement will soon leave its mark on health care as well.

Perception of Historic Tolerance of the Medical Profession

A 2018 report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) documents the problem of sexual harassment in the medical field in significant detail.  Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  Among other things, the NASEM report demonstrates that the academic environments in medicine exhibit characteristics that create high risk levels for the occurrence of sexual harassment.  The report finds that, by far, the greatest predictor of sexual harassment is the organizational climate across an institution (also referred to as the perceptions of organizational tolerance).  In short, women are more likely to be directly harassed and to witness the harassment of others in environments that are perceived as more tolerant or permissive of sexual harassment.

According to a recent AP investigation, the medical industry has traditionally been more forgiving of sexual harassment allegations within its own ranks. The AP found that “when doctors are disciplined, the punishment often consists of a short suspension paired with mandatory therapy that treats sexually abusive behavior as a symptom of an illness or an addiction” and that decades of complaints regarding the leniency of the physician disciplinary system for sexual misconduct toward patients or co-workers has produced little change in the practices of state medical boards.  AP Investigation: Doctors Keep Licenses Despite Sex Abuse (Apr. 14, 2018). The AP report details that the causes underlying these issues are complex and varied, including:

  • Failure of the medical community to take a stand against the issue;
  • Institutional bias on part of medical review boards to rehabilitate instead of revoke licensure;
  • Perceived tolerance for sexual harassment through precedent of lenient penalties for sexually abusive doctors which inhibits current disciplinary actions;
  • Interference from administrative law judges who reduce stricter punishment sought by medical boards against sexually abusive doctors (though medicine boards may seek to override administrative decisions they disagree with);
  • Hospital disinclination to report abusive doctors;
  • Rehabilitative physician health programs that are either ineffective in addressing sexual misbehavior or ignore it altogether; and
  • Patient and employee reluctance to challenge a medical professional or employers.

Regardless of the causes, the days of organizational tolerance of sexual harassment in the medical profession appear numbered as more and more individuals and institutions search for solutions to these historical challenges.

The #MeToo Movement is Here to Stay

Though perhaps not subject to the same media coverage initially afforded, the #MeToo movement remains an active force in the workplace. Title VII filings accounted for 56 percent of all filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in FY 2018. Perhaps the most striking trend of all is the substantial increase in sex-based discrimination filings, primarily the number of sexual harassment filings.  See EEOC Puts The Pedal To The Metal: FY 2018 Results.

#MeToo added fuel to this area of the EEOC’s agenda, with 74 percent of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this year targeting sex-based discrimination.  Compare this to FY 2017, where sex based discrimination accounted for 65 percent of Title VII filings. Of the FY 2018 sex discrimination filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. 11 of those filings were brought in the last three days of the fiscal year alone. The total number of sexual harassment filings was notably more than FY 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings.

How Medical Employers Can Challenge Perceptions of Organizational Tolerance

The #MeToo movement presents myriad challenges that defy one-size-fits-all solutions. However, there are practices that can assist employers in their quest to create harassment free workplaces. As the research suggests, creating an anti-harassment culture begins with company leadership and then can permeate the entire organization. Beyond simple compliance, legal measures should be implemented with the goal of improving accountability and reducing the occurrence of sexual harassment. Some measures include:

  • Update company policies to clarify protections and conduct, emphasize non-retaliation provisions, and ensure multiple reporting channels and robust response protocols;
  • Conduct proper, substantive investigations that are not outcome determinative; and
  • Enhance and refresh sexual harassment training from the top down and reinforce through communication and modeling.

Identifying and implementing active measures to challenge the perception of tolerance for any harassing or abusive behavior within an organization is an essential step toward meeting the #MeToo movement’s call for a respectful work environment for all.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Labor & Employment Team.

By Kyla J. Miller and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: According to the 4th Circuit, a female employee who was subjected to false rumors that her promotion was a result of sleeping with the boss can levy her claim for sex-based discrimination against her employer. The Court held that the Company served as a catalyst for the gossip stemming from one jealous co-worker, and held that these types of rumors are inherently based on sex stereotypes regarding women’s advancement and role in the workplace.

A three judge panel for the 4th Circuit found that subjecting a female employee to false rumors that she had an affair with her boss to obtain a promotion could violate Title VII. Parker v. Reema Consulting, No 18-1206 (4th Cir. February 8, 2019). Plaintiff–a warehouse manager–was good at her job. So good, in fact, that she climbed her way to the top at an unmatched speed. Starting as an entry level clerk, over the course of two years she managed to receive six separate promotions that led her to a management role.

But as they say–success attracts envy. Two weeks after receiving her latest promotion, a male colleague, who had started at the same time as Plaintiff but had trailed behind her in his own advancement, started a rumor that Plaintiff was having an affair with the boss who promoted her. The rumor was not true, yet it spread like wildfire. Soon, the highest ranked manager at the company started engaging in the gossip. After the rumor spread, Plaintiff alleged that her male coworkers treated her with hostility and disrespect, and that the manager himself accused Plaintiff of “bringing the situation to the workplace” after she requested a meeting to discuss her concerns. The manager also stated he could not recommend her for promotion and that he should have fired her when she started “huffing and puffing about the BS rumor,” according to the Complaint.

Plaintiff brought a claim to Human Resources about the situation. According to the Company, they held a meeting with all management, including Plaintiff, to defuse the situation, then ordered all employees participate in sexual harassment training. Despite that, the manager later fired Plaintiff, stating she created a hostile work environment for the employee who started the rumor, and blaming her for insubordination.

Plaintiff sued the company for sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, including a claim for hostile work environment. The District Court tossed the hostile work environment claim–finding that mere bullying and harassment based on the false rumor was not based on her sex. In his opinion, the Judge stated, “the problem for Ms. Parker is that her complaint as to the establishment and circulation of this rumor is not based upon her gender but rather based upon her alleged conduct, which was defamed by, you know, statements of this nature.” He went on to explain, “clearly, this woman is entitled to the dignity of her merit-based promotion and not to have it sullied by somebody suggesting that it was because she had sexual relations with a supervisor who promoted her. But that is not a harassment based upon gender. It is based upon false allegations of conduct by her.”

Plaintiff appealed–now grabbing the attention of the EEOC and 50 women’s and equal rights groups who filed amicus briefs on her behalf. On appeal, the crux of Plaintiff’s argument was that the rumors were grounded in traditional sex stereotypes regarding women’s advancement and role in the workplace. The rumor stemmed from a male subordinate who was jealous that Plaintiff was advancing quicker than her male counterparts–an idea that by its nature implicated sex. Further, Plaintiff argued that the reaction her superiors had to the rumors–especially the disparate treatment and hostility that resulted from it–further demonstrated how intertwined her gender was to the harassment.

The 4th Circuit agreed. Siding with Plaintiff, the Court found that the rumor implied that Plaintiff “used her womanhood, rather than her merit, to obtain from a man, so seduced, a promotion.” The 4th Circuit found it plausible that this rumor invoked a perception that generally women, not men, use sex to achieve success. And it is this double standard that subject women, not men, to perceptions that they will sell their bodies to get ahead. The rumor’s sexual undertone was enough to find Plaintiff plausibly alleged she suffered harassment because she is a woman.

Takeaways

In the age of #MeToo, it is critical employers stay on top of rulings that implicate hostile work environment claims. As this case demonstrates, courts are increasingly leaning towards a finding that stereotypes that could be associated generally with one gender over the other are intertwined with “sex” for purposes of Title VII. Employers should be aware that rumors about women “sleeping their way to the top” may very well implicate sex stereotypes. Quashing these types of rumors and ensuring management handle the situation appropriately is critical to avoiding vulnerability to Title VII claims about workplace gossip.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Tracy M. Billows, Benjamin J. Conley, Erin Dougherty Foley, Sara Eber Fowler, Jason Priebe, Michael Rechtin, Suzanne L. Saxman, Ryan M. Tilot, Jordan P. Vick, and Kevin A. Woolf

Seyfarth Synopsis: Please join us at our Chicago Willis Tower office on Thursday, December 6th, for breakfast along with a Seyfarth Legal Forum and Continuing Legal Education (CLE): 2018 Highlights and a Look Ahead to 2019.

About the Program

Providing our clients with a multidisciplinary overview of Legal Hot Button issues and Best Practice:  Featuring:

  • Biometric Information Privacy Act: What a long, strange year it’s been (and there’s more on the way!)
  • Legalize it: will Illinois go from medical to recreational marijuana and what would that mean to the real estate industry?
  • Affordable Care Act Update & Enforcement Activities, 401(k) Student Loan Repayment Arrangements, Socially Responsible Investments, and HIPAA Privacy & Security Audits
  • Mergers and Acquisitions: Current State of the Market and Post-Merger Integration Strategies
  • The “Cloud”…is in a building?: Data Centers are the newest, and maybe most important, type of real estate
  • Latest Developments in Pregnancy Accommodation (Illinois’ New Lactation Law and Nationwide Trends)
  • Litigation Hot Topics for 2019, including: Developments in trade secret and non-compete law; New laws affecting threshold issues such as forum selection and choice of law; Frontloaded discovery in federal court: Mandatory Initial Discovery Pilot Programs; Best practices for protecting the attorney-client privilege for in-house counsel
  • Welcome to the Future: It arrived yesterday – The intersection of Technology and Legal Services
  • Bots, bits and bytes… Artificial Intelligence and its leading role in recent legal projects

The program will feature a panel of Seyfarth Chicago subject matter experts — with an eye toward preparing for the developments in the coming year. Our overview will be targeted at highlighting issues for the General Counsel, Chief Information Officer, Chief Human Resource Officer, and other members of their teams.

The program will consist of an engaging ninety minute presentation with speakers from each of Seyfarth Chicago’s practice groups: Benefits, Corporate, Labor & Employment, Litigation, and Real Estate, as well as an exciting presentation on the use of technology in law. Then, we will offer 30 minute break-out sessions on hot topics warranting a deeper dive that companies are facing when looking at their legal compliance needs. The break-out sessions will address Privacy/Data Security, Managing in the #metoo Environment, and Blockchain/Cryptocurrency in business.

The program is on Thursday, December 6, 2018, at 8:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m., for breakfast and registration, 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m., for the panel presentations, and 10:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m., for the breakout sessions.  Our offices are at 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 8000, in Chicago, IL.

While there is no cost to attend, registration is required and space is limited.  If you have any questions, please contact Fiona Carlon at fcarlon@seyfarth.com and reference this event.

Also, for those that need the credits, note that Seyfarth Shaw LLP is an approved provider of Illinois CLE credit. This seminar is approved for 1.5 hours of CLE credit CA, IL, NY, NJ and TX. CLE Credit is pending for GA and VA. HR professionals: please note that the HR Certification Institute accepts CLE credit toward recertification.

By Linda Schoonmaker and John P. Phillips

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the use of the N-Word in the workplace one time is sufficient to trigger a hostile work environment. Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held that an employer may be held liable for workplace harassment when the plaintiff admitted that she did not complain of harassment until her final day of employment (and when the employer alleged that the plaintiff never complained of harassment). In light of this decision, and in light of the increased focus on workplace harassment over the past year, employers should use this case as an opportunity to review their No Harassment Policies and update their employment law training—to proactively ensure that harassing conduct does not occur in their workplaces.

When faced with allegations of a hostile work environment, employers often rely on two defenses: First, in order to be actionable, a hostile work environment must be both “subjectively” and “objectively” hostile. In other words, the plaintiff must subjectively perceive the harassment to be abusive, and the work environment must be one “that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.” Over the years, courts have typically required multiple instances of inappropriate or harassing behavior, in order to meet this standard. Second, if the harassing behavior was committed by co-workers, the plaintiff must have complained of the harassment. In other words, the employer must have knowledge of the harassing conduct (either actual or implied—companies cannot hide their heads in the sand) before it can be held liable.

In a recent decision, however, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that use of the N-Word on one occasion could create a hostile work environment, and the Court held that the employer could be held liable even though the plaintiff admitted that she never complained about alleged harassment until (allegedly) right before her termination. (In fact, the company denied that she ever complained at all.)

Given the increased media focus on workplace harassment, this case provides a good opportunity for employers to review their anti-harassment policies and procedures, in order to proactively ensure that harassment-related issues do not proliferate in the workplace.

Background on the Case

In Smelter v. Southern Home Care Services, Inc., the plaintiff had been hired by Southern Home Care Services in July 2013 as a customer service supervisor. As part of her job, the plaintiff was responsible for coordinating with caregivers and clients, scheduling in-home visits, and accurately recording all caregivers’ work time. There was no dispute that the plaintiff required extra training and committed many mistakes during her employment. In September 2013, she was terminated for poor performance, after a final incident in which she got in a heated argument with and yelled at a co-worker. Following her termination, the plaintiff asserted the following allegations:

  • She had endured racist remarks from her co-workers nearly every day during her employment.
  • During the argument with her co-worker on the last day of her employment, her co-worker had called her a “dumb black [N-Word].”
  • Her co-workers had made derogatory comments about black men, black women, President Obama, and compared the plaintiff with a monkey from the movie Planet of the Apes.
  • Her supervisor thought the racist comments were funny.

Although the plaintiff admitted that she had never complained about any of the comments prior to the final incident, the plaintiff alleged that she had told her supervisor about the harassment before she was terminated. Her supervisor claimed that she never complained about any race-related comments, and the plaintiff’s exit interview paperwork—which both the plaintiff and her supervisor signed—had no mention of any harassment-related complaints.

Ultimately, the district court granted summary judgment for the company, finding that the harassment the plaintiff allegedly experienced was not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment, as a matter of law, and that the company had no knowledge of the alleged harassment. The plaintiff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Opinion

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit made two significant holdings:

First, the Court held that even standing alone, the single use of the N-Word was sufficient to constitute severe harassment. The Court explained:

Southern Home argues that [the co-worker]’s “one-time use” of [the N-Word] was insufficient to establish severity as a matter of law. We strongly disagree. This Court has observed that the use of this word is particularly egregious when directed toward a person in an offensive or humiliating manner.

The Court also held that the other comments alleged by the plaintiffs were similarly sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment, and consequently, the plaintiff had alleged a legally actionable hostile work environment claim.

Second, the Court disagreed with the district court that the employer did not have knowledge of the alleged harassment. Although it was undisputed that the plaintiff failed to report any harassment until the final day of her employment (and the company disputed whether she had even reported it then), the plaintiff had alleged that the racist slurs were “funny to everybody that worked in the . . . office,” including her supervisor. The Court found that this was sufficient evidence to hold that the supervisor had knowledge of the comments, since she could not have found the comments funny if she did not hear them.

Thus, the Court found that the plaintiff had alleged an actionable hostile work environment claim, and it remanded the case to the district court for trial.

Takeaways

In light of this decision and the increased awareness of improper workplace conduct stemming from the #MeToo movement, there are a number of proactive steps that employers can take to help ensure that their companies have the proper culture to avoid harassment complaints and allegations:

  • Review and revise, if necessary, the No Harassment Policy. Most companies have No Harassment Policies (and if your company doesn’t, it should). However, often those policies have not been updated in a number of years. Now is a good time to pull out the policy, review it, and make any necessary updates, including ensuring that there are clear, and multiple, avenues for employees to report harassment.
  • Train your managers and supervisors. Your supervisors are your most effective buffer against employment law-related allegations and lawsuits, and they serve as a conduit between the company and its employees. Managers and supervisors should get regular anti-harassment and other employment-law based training, in order to ensure that they will know when harassment is occurring and will know what to do if they spot inappropriate conduct.
  • Focus on proper documentation. In conjunction with training your supervisors and managers, documentation issues should be covered. To defend any lawsuit, you must have good documentation. Your supervisors should be trained on correctly documenting all employment actions.
  • Promptly investigate and correct any complaints of harassment. Once the company is aware of any improper harassment-related conduct, whether from a direct complaint or an observation in the workplace, the company must take prompt and appropriate action. In doing so, it is important to take all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously, immediately perform a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints, and implement swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, if necessary, including possible termination or suspension.

Over the past year, workplace harassment issues have increasingly grabbed headlines. While all employers can agree that use of the N-Word is especially egregious, employers must take steps to ensure that such conduct does not occur. More importantly, employers must ensure that they have the policies and procedures in place to prove that such conduct did not occur. This means having an up-to-date No Harassment Policy, and supervisors and managers who are well-trained on anti-harassment and proper investigation methods. By proactively addressing any workplace harassment issues head-on, employers can put themselves in the best possible position to defend any subsequent lawsuit.

By John P. Phillips and Linda Schoonmaker

Seyfarth Synopsis: In recent months, sexual harassment has seized national headlines and raised significant questions about company policies, procedures, and culture. In response, many companies and HR personnel have questioned how to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual harassment. A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides a helpful summary of the state of Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination and harassment law, and the appropriate company response to harassment. Given the national debate and this recent decision, now is a good time for employers to implement some best practices to (1) prevent harassment before it occurs and (2) take appropriate remedial action if it does.

Sexual harassment has been around for a long time, but recently it has garnered national headlines. Movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up have appropriately focused the spotlight on company policies and procedures. It is important for companies to continue to improve workplace culture and their responses to harassment when it does occur. At the same time, it is important for companies to understand the legal framework for a harassment claim, and their legal responsibilities.

A recent decision out of the Western District of Wisconsin provides an important reminder on the state of the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, and an employer’s responsibility to prevent and correct any harassing behavior.

Background on the Case

In Lee v. Dairyland Power Cooperative, the plaintiff alleged that several of her co-workers sexually harassed her, and that the company failed to take adequate steps to prevent the harassment. After an analysis of the applicable framework for sexual harassment under Title VII, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s case, finding that she could not prevail on her harassment claim as a matter of law.

The facts of the case were largely undisputed and simple: on one occasion, the plaintiff overheard her immediate supervisor, a co-worker, and a security contractor—all male—discussing their desire for her to wear her “spring outfits.” They also compared her physically to another employee, who they described in a sexually suggestive manner; and they discussed the sex life of yet another employee. These facts were undisputed, and the plaintiff complained to Human Resources the same day. HR immediately investigated the incident and concluded that the sexually demeaning conversation had occurred.

The plaintiff’s supervisor personally apologized to the plaintiff and promised that the action would never happen again; that he would not engage in any further sexual harassment; and that he would protect the plaintiff from retaliation. The company asked the plaintiff to return to work, but she refused, believing the company’s response was inadequate. The company followed-up, explaining that there were no positions to which she could be transferred to be away from the supervisor. Feeling that the company had not fixed the situation, the plaintiff quit her employment. That same day, the company suspended the supervisor for two weeks without pay, and ordered him to attend retraining on the company’s sexual harassment policy.

Application of Title VII

The Court laid out the legal standard for maintaining a sexual harassment claim under Title VII (the federal law prohibiting harassment in the workplace): the plaintiff must prove that (1) she experienced unwelcome harassment, (2) the harassment was based on sex, (3) the harassment was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of her employment and created a hostile or abusive environment, and (4) a basis exists for holding the employer liable. Here, it was undisputed that the plaintiff had experienced unwelcome harassment based on her sex. However, the Court found that she could not meet the third and fourth prongs of the test.

First, the Court found that overhearing the statements on only one occasion did not create an abusive working environment. Indeed, the Court applied Seventh Circuit precedent for the proposition that “verbal harassment limited to a one-time incident that was overheard, rather than intentionally inflicted, does not rise to the severe or pervasive standard under Title VII.”

Second, the Court found that the employer could not be held liable for the wholly inappropriate conduct of the supervisor. The company maintained an anti-harassment policy, which the supervisor violated. And as soon as the company learned that harassment had occurred, it initiated an investigation pursuant to its no harassment policy; and the company instituted discipline reasonably calculated to end the harassment. The Court found that the two-week suspension, apology, promise to protect the plaintiff from any harassment, and retraining on sexual harassment issues were sufficient for the company to meets its legal burden to resolve the problematic work environment. Accordingly, the company could not be held liable under Title VII.

Takeaways and Best Practices

When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, nobody wins. And as the Dairyland Power case makes clear, even companies that have and enforce no harassment policies can face costly litigation. Given the current national debate over harassment, now is a good time for employers to review and reevaluate their sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Employers should consider several proactive steps—to help prevent sexual harassment on the front-end and then to appropriately handle the situation if it were to arise—including: (1) ensuring the company’s no harassment policy and reporting structure is up-to-date and clear; (2) providing harassment and employment law training to supervisors and managers; (3) taking all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously; (4) immediately performing a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints; and (5) implementing swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, including termination or suspension if necessary.

Above all, employers should strive to ensure that their company’s culture is one where sexual, or any other form of harassment, is simply not tolerated. Instead, each employee should enjoy a safe and respectful work environment, and feel empowered to raise any workplace harassment issue with his or her supervisor, manager, or HR. At the same time, the company should feel secure that taking proactive action on the front-end to eliminate any harassment before it occurs, and taking immediate action to stop and remedy any harassment after it occurs, is sufficient to satisfy its legal obligations under Title VII. Fortunately, the Dairyland Power decision continues to apply this legal standard.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Rashal G. Baz, Katherine Mendez, and Chelsea D. Mesa

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers are now being presented with more options to outsource workplace complaints through third party companies and mobile apps. This may create an ease in grievance reporting for the employee, but does not necessarily shield employer liability.

Harassment in the workplace is not a novel issue, but with the rise of national and global movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up — it has been on the forefront of our social, political and business conversations. Hollywood has cast a spotlight on sexual harassment and the sometimes imperfect protocols in place to address concerns. These issues are appearing in the headlines, TV shows, and social media platforms with the potential impacts of destroying a company’s goodwill and bottom line.

In response to this outcry and several industries’ spotting an opportunity to get involved, the technology-driven community has responded with mobile apps, anonymous grievance non-profit websites, new third-party consulting companies, and modernized hotline services. The goals of these new technologies and strategies is to heed complaints and optimize an employer’s response.

The Current State of Things

Before touching on the reporting outlets, it is critical to understand why a demand for such services exist. Historically, there have been studies that note the resistance to workplace harassment reporting. This could be attributed to a fear of employer retaliation, unwanted peer attention, distress in confronting a perpetrator or lack of trust in workplace changes following such a complaint. Sometimes employees simply do not know or recall where to find the protocol for filing harassment incidents. These are among the reasons the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other organizations shine a close light on the response procedures employed by a company.

Many employers use a host of different practices designed to make reporting as simple and effective as possible. These range from traditional reporting to a supervisor or HR in writing or in person, to the use of a designated ombudsman, email submissions and hotline phone numbers. The goal is to encourage the reporting of complaints, so they can be resolved.

A New Twist on Reporting

Mobile Applications: Glued to our phones, it only follows that harassment and employment complaint apps have been created for the workforce. When reporting an issue is easy and familiar, it stands to reason that more information will be transmitted to the business. One example app uses a subscription-based service employers can purchase and integrate into internal procedures. The app allows workers to identify themselves and their location or remain anonymous and pick from different pre-set messages to indicate the nature and severity of the concern. These apps also allow an employee to include documents, images or videos that are sent to their choice of two to four default managers who will receive the correspondence. These services claim to provide a safe space for raising concerns, free from external interference.

Consulting Groups: Third-party consulting groups have also responded to the need for something new by creating company-specific online environments where employees can file complaints. In turn, the consultants will assess the complaint, write an action plan on what type of investigation is needed, and provide an external “expert” to do a workplace investigation for inappropriate behavior. These companies tout experienced personnel that investigate the issue while avoiding the purported “inherent bias” human resources personnel may hold toward the complainant or accused employee.

Hotline Services: Outsourced workplace harassment and discrimination hotline services are not new, but seemed to have stepped up their game as well. Typically, hotlines provide a company-specific phone number, voicemail box and email address where employees can voice grievances. Instead of merely transmitting the collected data to employers, the third-party services are now also offering more involvement in employee complaints. Several now offer to have “experienced” human resource professionals produce a report that allows the employer to handle the issue internally, or chose an external route to be handled by a “team of experts,” similar to the aforementioned consulting process.

Will This Help My System?

While additional reporting processes can be beneficial to obtaining data and addressing complaints, using an external service does nothing to change any of the employer’s obligations. If an employer’s practices and implementation of strategy aren’t already strong, implementing the “hot new thing” would simply serve as a rearrangement of chairs on the deck of the Titanic, and not really solve much. In considering whether to add this to its arsenal, employers would have to trust that the individuals involved with their complaints are, in fact, qualified to handle them. Failures along the way will still fall on the shoulders of an employer.

An employer’s uniform response to delicate situations can help defend against retaliation claims stemming from harassment reports; however, it is difficult to remember, and thus repeat, how you responded to a previous situation without accessible and thorough documentation. Outsourcing the complaint to a third-party technology may assist in providing a platform employers can reference when handling a new grievance. However, these services can also expose employers to cybersecurity issues. This false sense of security can end in costly litigation if you do not audit these services on an annual basis. Complaints lost in the cloud will result in claims against employers, not the app.

These external systems also do not address the alleged “bias” concern plaintiffs often argue exist. These systems would still be contracted and paid for by the employer, who will have likely partnered with the third party to set up the system. And as the third party works with the employer over time and learns its business, a relationship between the parties (and a desire to keep the employer happy so the relationship continues) will likely develop. It is unclear how a third party will avoid the same arguments of bias that an internal process will face. This further rings true because the relationship’s collaborative nature still has the employer making the ultimate decision on next steps in response to a complaint.

On the flip side, employers who choose not to utilize such services may not be out of reach of their effects. There are organizations creating anonymous hotlines that allow employees from any company to submit a report that in turn is “instantly” sent to who they deem the appropriate individuals within the complainant’s organization. And Silicon Valley has created smartphone apps that allow employees to anonymously report an incident to the company’s chief executive and board. This places the burden on those who receive these complaints, who may not be the person within an organization able to respond quickly enough, to send them through the proper channels. Even though these systems may provide another means for employees to feel as though they have raised a concern, there is no guarantee it gets into the company and to someone who can address it.

The Takeaways

There have been many assessments on how to minimize incidents of harassment and create a zero-tolerance environment for such scenarios. Initially, these new systems may seem like the right solution, but if you are integrating protocols that are not followed by the head of the company to the grassroots, a palpable workplace change and a legally sound grievance procedure is unlikely.

The benefit of these outlets include the creation of additional accessible channels workers may feel safe utilizing, but does not guarantee the complaint gets in the hand of the person who has the power to address it. Using a third party to assess complaints may avoid alleged HR biases in theory, but the company’s relationship with the service and ultimate decision-making ability weakens the practicality of that benefit.

These resources may represent the future of reporting and thus require employers to proactively adopt policies and training to avoid being blindsided by their arrival. Ultimately, the release of numerous online lists pointing out sexual harassment perpetrators and the rise in anonymous direct-to-company complaints may create an ethical duty to prepare your staff on how to process the information. Should you chose to contract these grievance reporting services, it would be wise to conduct internal training on how to utilize it and what human resources/supervisors should do when they receive notice of a complaint. Finally, evaluate and update your workplace harassment and reporting policies.

Ensure your company has the internal knowledge it needs to react when the time comes. And always feel free to reach out to your favorite Seyfarth employment lawyer for guidance on how to implement and maintain the most effective and appropriate processes as we march toward the future of harassment reporting.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.