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Have You Reviewed Your Sexual Harassment Policy Lately?

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Two former Fairfax County Firefighters recently pursued sexual harassment claims against Fairfax County in Alexandria Federal Court.  In one case decided in late May of this year, former firefighter Mary Getts Bland received a $250,000 jury verdict.  In early June, a second former firefighter, Stacey Bailey had her claim dismissed on summary judgment. 

Peter Vieth of Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly reports

Both cases involved allegations of a male-dominated culture at Fairfax firehouses, where crude jokesare the norm and one particular officer regularly made explicit and demeaning comments to female employees. 

In both cases, the women alleged years of harassment from a supervisor as well as complaints of improper comments made in the workplace.  A sexual harassment policy was in place during the events.  Despite the fact that the charges were investigated and actions taken, the County was still held liable. 

The expense of having to pay a damage award after losing to a claim of sexual harassment, the litigation costs involved and the negative publicity caused by such a case should encourage employers to review the current sexual harassment policy they have in place.  

An effective policy should have the following characteristics: 

  1. Specify behavior that is considered to be harassing.  If you are unsure how to specify such behavior, begin with the EEOC.  The EEOC provides several examples of sexual harassing behavior such as: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
  2. Establish a comprehensive reporting procedure
  3. Emphasize the importance of reporting harassment as soon as possible after it occurs
  4. Specify that reporting is confidential and that retaliation will not occur
  5. Emphasize a “no tolerance” policy for harassing behavior – notify employees that harassment will not be tolerated and could result in termination for employees participating in the behavior 

Even with a policy in place, education and enforcement are necessary in order for a sexual harassment policy to be effective.   Employers must take the time to inform employees of the policy and if a harassing event is reported, to fully investigate.