Ask HR: My Company Is Confused About Same-Sex Sexual Harassment

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP April 3, 2020
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Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

Question: It seems my HR manager doesn't know how to handle woman-on-woman harassment. I have worked for the same company for nearly 17 years. Recently, I was touched inappropriately by another female colleague. I reported it to HR, but my co-worker told them we're "friends. We're not. Initially, HR let her telecommute. When that solution didn't succeed, I was told to avoid her work area. However, she routinely visits mine. If she was a man, my co-worker would have been fired. What should I do?  

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I am very sorry you find yourself in this troubling situation. Unwanted touching is inappropriate, regardless of sex or gender, and there absolutely should be consequences—serious ones.

You did the right thing by reporting this to HR. After all, 96 percent of organizations have a formal sexual harassment policy. But even when organizations have policies in place, that doesn't mean all employees will abide by them. 

I would start by following up with your point of contact in HR to help gather facts and minimize assumptions.

It's possible HR is still investigating the incident or determining the best next steps. Maybe a conclusion was already reached, and HR was unable to disclose the specific resulting disciplinary actions. Remember: Sexual harassment, even if proven, does not always result in automatic termination.

If you still feel HR inadequately addressed the incident after learning more, you could take your concern up the chain. Now, the person you should contact will depend on the size and structure of your organization. But, as a rule, avoid going over anyone's head. If your HR contact has a manager, go to him or her. If you already worked with a manager, consider their supervisor. If you're out of options, then it'd be time to talk to your HR executive.

At the end of the day, if your organization isn't taking action, file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the equivalent civil and human rights agency in your state. I can guarantee you, at that point, this matter will be investigated.

Again, I'm sorry this occurred while you were at work. Considering your long tenure, I would hope and expect your company to hear you and take appropriate action.

I wish you the best.

 

Question: One of my team members is transgender, and recently shared her "preferred pronouns." I'll use them to respect her wish but I am wondering if I'm required to? - Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: This is not an easy one to answer, but I'll take a shot.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says intentionally failing to use an individual's preferred pronouns can be considered sex discrimination and some state civil and human rights organizations feel the same way. But the courts have not ruled on this issue in context of the workplace.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a recent case involving a transgender convict, refused to honor the convicted person's preferred pronouns in the court records. So, it is possible the EEOC and the Courts understand this issue differently.

Since the law is murky, I recommend following the "Golden Rule:" "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Think about it. If you asked a colleague to call you by your middle name, although your first name is what appears on your new hire paperwork, wouldn't it bother you if your colleague refused to honor your request? So, even if it's not required, why not just do it?

As the workplace becomes more diverse, many organizations are working hard to improve their inclusion efforts. You can play a role in helping all people feel more included at work by honoring these types of small requests that don't cost you anything.

It's great you'll respect your co-worker's wish. I know a pronoun might seem like a small gesture, but it can have a big impact—I'm happy to hear yours will be positive.

Thank you for this question!

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