Recently the Seattle Times reported on a settlement between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Roy Farms. Roy Farms, one of the largest hop producers in the world, is located in Eastern Washington. The EEOC sued Roy Farms on behalf of four of Roy Farm’s male employees. In the lawsuit the four male workers claim they suffered nearly two years of constant sexual harassment from a male supervisor. The sexual harassment consisted of unwanted sexual and threatening comments and physical contact, such as facial caresses. According to the lawsuit, the sexual harassment continued even after other supervisors and the farm’s owner were notified of the behavior. As a result at least one of the workers felt compelled to quit working for Roy Farms.
Roy Farms denies all of the charges. But, the Yakima Herald reports that Roy Farms agreed to pay $85,000 to the allegedly harassed workers as part of the settlement. And Roy Farms will update and improve its complaints procedures and sexual harassment prevention policies. The EEOC will also monitor the company’s compliance for the next three years.
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination, and it is illegal. Generally, sexual harassment in the workplace is assumed to be between a male supervisor and a female employee, often consisting of suggestive comments, touches, or quid pro quo offers. But as the settlement with Roy Farms illustrates, sexual harassment in the workplace may occur between individuals of the same gender. It may also occur between co-workers and between employees and clients.
Sexual harassment may include sexual comments and touching, as in the Roy Farms case, but may also include visual images and arguably obscene gestures. These harassing behaviors and comments may be overt or subtle. But, one of the key aspects of harassment, sexual or otherwise, is that it is unwanted and unwelcome. And, over time, these unwanted actions create a hostile work environment.
Hostile work environments may have a noticeably negative impact on job performance as it creates an environment in which an employee is too distressed to perform at their peak. Additionally, if the harassment occurs between a supervisor and an employee, courts will look for a negative impact on the employment of the harassed employee, like denied promotions or reduced hours. Fortunately, employers may avoid the negative impact of harassment in the workplace through proactive measures.
Addressing Workplace Harassment
In many instances, addressing the harassment before it occurs or, in case it has occurred, when it begins is the best way to prevent a hostile work environment. Clear non-discrimination and non-harassment policies and trainings are a good start to addressing potential harassment scenarios. Providing confidential and, in some cases, non-chain of supervision options for reporting instances of harassment may encourage earlier reporting and show employer support for a harassment free workplace. It is also important to have procedures in place for investigating and positively addressing potential harassment. Roy Farms obviously had a reporting system, as the employees reported the harassment, but lacked necessary procedures to follow through with the reported incidents. As a result, Roy Farms allegedly allowed a hostile work environment that led to a fairly costly lawsuit.
If you believe you have suffered from sexual harassment in the workplace or are looking to improve company harassment policies, an experience HKM employment law attorney can help.