Workplace harassment is no laughing matter, despite the humorous depictions of it in movies. And while harassment of any kind can make the workplace hostile and unproductive, among the most damaging and pervasive situations are cases of harassment of an employee by his or her supervisor.
Sometimes it looks like bribery. If the employee submits to the unwelcome behavior, he or she receives the employment benefits, conditions or terms that the supervisor has the power to bestow. If the victim doesn’t submit, or complains, it could affect his or her job. And surprisingly, women are not the only victims of harassment by their bosses. Men experience harassment too, although perhaps not as blatantly as in the examples in Horrible Bosses.
Harasser-Bosses Do More Damage
“For the employee, the difference is significant. Harassment by a supervisor can be much more severe because of the threat of retaliation if the employee complains,” says David Barron, a labor and employment attorney with Cozen O’Connor.
“For the employer, there are significant legal differences because the company is only liable for co-worker harassment if it knew or should have known of the misconduct,” he says. “An employer is generally strictly liable for supervisor harassment subject to a defense only if it can show that the employee failed to report the harassment in a timely manner and that the employer took swift and remedial action.”
Quid Pro Quo
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While the courts may look differently on harassment, depending on who the harasser is, the actual behavior can be pretty much the same.
“Typically, co-worker harassment includes inappropriate remarks, touching, or offensive behavior,” says Barron. “Supervisor harassment can fall into the same category but can also include what is called ‘quid pro quo’ harassment which entails promises of job advancement for sexual favors (i.e. sleep with me and you will get a promotion).”
A victim who succumbs to a supervisor’s advances still may be able to bring a claim of harassment against the company, so it’s important for employers to pay attention to situations that look consensual, but may not be.
Do Something – Quickly
“Obviously, a work environment which fosters inappropriate behavior is a legal time bomb waiting to explode,” says Barron. “Employees who witness harassment can themselves feel threatened or offended and can also bring a claim if it affects their job.”
Barron advises that complaints of harassment be investigated immediately by an impartial investigator (preferably HR or an upper-level manager).
“Statements should be taken from all interested parties and the company should decide what level of remedial action is appropriate,” he says. “Not every complaint warrants discipline; sometimes an apology or follow-up training is all that is required to remedy a problem.”
The important thing, Barron stresses, is for the employer to take some action and to document the process thoroughly. “Doing nothing always looks bad.”