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 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.

By Kyla Miller, Megan P. Toth, and Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: Gone are the days where sexual harassment training will be enough. It’s time to shift the workplace focus from just ticking a box (i.e., training complete) to creating a culture where harassment (or discrimination) of any kind is truly not tolerated.  Promptly and effectively responding to such allegations is one step in the right direction.  This is the second article in a three-part series addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, which looks closely at corporate culture and provides tips on how companies might avoid being the next sexual harassment headline.

#MeToo In the Workplace and How to Address It

It’s been more than 30 years since the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII, and it’s been nearly 20 years since it mandated that complaints of sexual harassment (and discrimination) be investigated. Yet, in reality, as made clear in recent media reports, most violations go unreported and uninvestigated. The EEOC estimates that, of the 30,000 harassment complaints they receive each year, only 6% to 13% of individuals who experience harassment actually file a formal complaint with the EEOC.  However, the #MeToo campaign may be on its way to changing that statistic.

One key to preventing #MeToo in the workplace is fostering a corporate culture that not only says behavior matters, but also shows behavior matters.  But how do employers both walk the walk and talk the talk?  The following are some helpful tips:

  1. Understand what sexual harassment is … the obvious and the not-so-obvious.

The #MeToo campaign has revealed that the vast majority of people have questions or doubts about whether conduct really is sexual harassment.  Let’s take a little quiz:

Could the following acts be considered sexual harassment? Answer Yes or No.

Requests for sexual favors?

Physical Touching?

Comments relating to a person’s sex generally?

A woman asking out another woman?

A man favoring another man (over a woman)?

A co-worker repeatedly teasing another co-worker about sex?

A client or customer sending gifts to an employee?

Could you definitively answer yes or no to each of these examples?  Or did you need more context?  Your answer should be the latter, because yes, each of those examples could be sexual harassment, but each of them could also NOT be sexual harassment.  It depends on the nature, severity and pervasiveness of the conduct.  Whether or not conduct legally rises to the level of actionable “sexual harassment” cannot be analyzed in a vacuum.

Confused?  Here’s why: The question is (legally) whether the conduct at issue was “severe or pervasive,” such that it affected the terms and conditions of the employee’s workplace, objectively and subjectively.

The point –– Not all physical touching, bawdy conversations or allegations of sexual harassment are legally actionable — even if the person reporting it was offended.  Each inquiry is unique and must be investigated thoroughly to determine if sexual harassment actually occurred and what corrective action, if any, should be taken.

  1. Foster an inclusive culture through training and positive reinforcement by managers.

Companies that continue to tolerate bad behavior are placing themselves at risk.  Even conduct that does not cross the line but is disrespectful or rude takes a toll on employee morale.  Attitudes and culture can change.  Employers can provide training to set behavior expectations, and lead by example to create a culture that does not encourage or tolerate such conduct.  However, training simply to prevent legal liability (i.e., because it is required by law) will fall short.  Companies must work from the top down to incite change, which may include a whole-company approach to create and maintain a culture of tolerance, compliance and respect.  In thinking about how to deploy that type of training, keep in mind that training should be:

  1. Tailored. Mirror training to realistic situations that are specific to your work environment.
  2. Frequent. Once a year or more. Anything less is not enough to highlight it as a high priority.
  3. Interesting. Vary the dynamic, style, form and content each time it is presented. (Keep it fresh!)

To create a systemic culture of inclusion, one place to start is with your Human Resources department.  Your HR department should be diverse and accurately reflect your workforce so that they are able understand and respond to its unique demands.  In addition to HR, the actions and integrity of your corporate leaders are crucial. Your company’s leaders must demonstrate a sense of urgency and commitment to your employees, and particularly to preventing discrimination and harassment. How, you ask? Commit the time and resources towards mindful training and continued support to top-level managers to ensure those who have the power and authority to effect change have the support and resources to do it.  It bears repeating: a culture of tolerance and inclusion starts from the top down.

  1. Allow multiple avenues for reporting harassment.

Most employers have an anti-harassment policy. But simply stating that it is not tolerated is not enough. Make it clear that there are multiple avenues for reporting misconduct. For example, allow employees to notify human resources, contact a higher level executive, or call a third-party hotline.  Giving employees multiple ways of getting the complaints heard further encourages such reporting.

  1. Identify situational risk factors.

Being proactive and identifying risks before they turn into problems (or even worse, lawsuits) is half the battle. One place to start is identifying and addressing circumstances, unique to your company, that may increase the risk for sexual harassment claims. For example, the following situations may increase the risk of sexual harassment claims:

  • Workforces with significant cultural and language differences in the workplace;
  • Workforces with significant age or gender imbalances;
  • Workplaces that value customer satisfaction over employee well-being;
  • Isolated workspaces;
  • Workplace cultures that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption.
  1. Understand the corporate role.

Even in the wake of heightened media on this issue, protecting your workforce and the company is not impossible.  Employers’ legal responsibilities are to: (1) take reasonable efforts to prevent sexual harassment and (2) to promptly and effectively investigate, respond to, and address complaints. By doing both of these things, employers lessen their chances of being found liable for their employees’ behavior in the wake of a lawsuit.

As recent headlines suggest, “good enough” is “not enough.”  Doing just the bare minimum will not suffice. Strive to do more. Over-train. Over-inform. Over-discuss. If employers can accomplish this, they are on the right path to preventing #MeToo in the workplace.

Next up – We will present insights from Seyfarth Shaw at Work’s Managing Director to share his insights from the front lines and provide his thoughts on how organizations can credibly and effectively combat workplace sexual harassment.

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.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to weigh in on the growing national debate around the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations.  To date, no one seems immune from the allegations: celebrities, politicians, presidents. See for instance Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 issue. We hope this dialogue will empower employees and employers, alike, to speak up before inappropriate, but previously unmentioned conduct, festers.  This conversation also creates an opportunity for a company to look hard at its corporate culture and how it can strive to make it welcoming and inclusive. Welcome to our three part series. 

The First in a Three Part Series Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.  (Part 1)

By Erin Dougherty Foley

A Blog in Three Parts:  Kicking off our three part series – this week’s installment will look at how to avoid some of the landmines that can accompany holiday parties; Part 2 will look at the role corporate culture plays in establishing that feeling of mutual respect and shared courtesy; and then in Part 3 we will invite Philippe Weiss, Esq., Managing Director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, to share his insights from the front lines and his thoughts on how organizations can credibly and effectively combat workplace sexual harassment.

’Tis the Season: Perhaps more than any other time, lawyers and laypeople alike are talking about sexual harassment.  Indeed, the country is in the midst of an important national conversation about such abuses of power and is trying to come to terms with what the despicable “me too” allegations say about our workplaces and our values.  We hope this conversation, the national headlines, social media campaigns, and watercooler conversations, shine a light on genuine misconduct that should be addressed.  But with the holiday season — and the holiday party season — upon us, this adds an extra layer of anxiety to the already wide range of “what could possibly go wrong” scenarios.

We recognize that this year, perhaps more than others, people may be on heightened alert for misconduct or have a lower threshold for what may be considered inappropriate work place conduct.  But Holiday parties also provide an important opportunity to build comradery, give thanks, show appreciation for your employees’ hard work throughout the year, and recognize past achievements. We don’t think you should scuttle these good intentions, but we do think a little advance planning can ease the process.  So, this week, we’re decking the halls with some blogs from the Ghost of Holiday Party’s past (such as Don’t Let Too Much Eggnog Ruin Your Office Holiday Party: Tips to Limit Employer Liability at Company Parties and Don’t Be Scrooged: Wage & Hour Tips To Help Employers Avoid Holiday Party Humbug) , in which our colleagues have sagely opined on how to spread holiday cheer without getting run over by a reindeer (or a charge of harassment).

Party Planning Tips to Consider:

  • Prior to the party, circulate a memo (or an email to all employees) reiterating your company’s policy against sexual and other forms of harassment.
  • Remind employees in that communication that the policy applies to their conduct at company parties and other social events, and they should act in a professional manner at all times.
  • Make attendance at the holiday party entirely voluntary and convey that message to employees with unwavering clarity.
  • Set a tone of moderation by reminding employees of the company’s policy against the abuse of alcohol and zero tolerance with respect to the possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs.
  • Consider limiting the amount of alcohol served and/or stop serving well before the party ends (and have lots of non-alcoholic alternatives).-
  • Have plenty of food, (and curb the concern that someone may be drinking on an empty stomach).
  • No mistletoe, no scantily clad elves, and no “bad Santa” (for all the obvious reasons)!
  • Remind managers to set a professional example, and designate several managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated.
  • Anticipate the need for alternative transportation and don’t allow employees who have been drinking heavily to drive home.

Post-Party Wrap-Up: Of course, if post-party concerns are raised, they should be addressed promptly (investigated if necessary), and, where applicable, dealt with consistent with other incidents of inappropriate conduct.  Remember, just because something happened “off campus” does not make it “off limits” from the Company’s standpoint.  Ensuring that your employees know you are going to respond to any allegation of misconduct sends a powerful message.

Once you’ve gotten past the holidays, and as you face 2018 with a clear head and renewed hope for the new year, it’s a good time to start thinking about whether your company needs to change its ways (like Scrooge after meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future) or to improve its employee communications (like Walter the Dad in Elf) or to be more inclusive (like Santa stopping at the Island of MisFit Toys).  And while making such changes can be challenging, think of the good that can come from them.

Next week, we’ll look at the importance of corporate culture in these times of heightened awareness.  Stay tuned.

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.