Back in the 1990s, employers still had the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the tawdry sexual harassment allegations relatively fresh on their minds. Employment lawyers will tell you that they started to see a bump up in claims in the early to mid 1990s as the issues of workplace harassment raised to the surface.
I raised it in one of my posts 10 years ago this very week.
But even before yesterday’s news that major movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has been accused of sexual harassment of many women over many years, I’d been thinking that we’re seeing another wave.
For employers, this new era should be even more concerning.
Because back in the 1980s and early 1990s, employers could at least say that “well, we didn’t know we needed to train” or “well, we didn’t know we needed to do an investigation.” It may not have been plausible (or even good business), but at least it was something.
Now with laws in many states mandating sexual harassment prevention training and with U.S. Supreme Court precedent nearly mandating that employers investigate harassment claims and take prompt remedial action, there’s just no excuse.
And yet, over the last 12-24 months, we’ve seen a series of very high-profile people be brought down over sex harassment cases.
The implications for this are huge — and not for the reasons you may think.
It’ll take a while for statistics to back this up, but my educated guess is that settlements of sex harassment claims, and employee verdicts of sex harassment claims are up and going to continue going up.
As a result, employers are likely to pay more for settlements in the short term to avoid headlines of the type we are seeing. And juries are more likely to punish employers that they think should know better.
The practical implications of this for employers are several, but I’ll highlight three, some of which I’ve said before.
- It is absolutely imperative for employers to investigate sex harassment claims. But more than that, employers must take steps to ensure that the harassment STOPS. Paying off one case, only to have the harasser move on to the next victim just is a recipe for disaster.
- When a lawsuit does arise, make sure you are fairly evaluating the case. Even if you think you have a defense, there may be more value to settling the case early on than fighting it and losing big. Not every case is a home run, but not every case is an outright winner for the employer either.
- Train. Train. Train. And when you’re done training, encourage people to bring issues to your attention. Sweeping claims under the rug will only hurt the employer in the long run.
A new era of sex harassment claims is upon us. Employers that allow any such harassment to go on risks headlines AND big payouts. It’s a place employers should strive really hard to avoid.