Protect Workers Whose Jobs Make Them Vulnerable to Harassment

Panic buttons, self-defense training may help safeguard isolated workers

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 8, 2018
Protect Workers Whose Jobs Make Them Vulnerable to Harassment

​Janitors. Housekeepers. Gig economy workers. Farmworkers. Employees on the third shift. These individuals are particularly vulnerable to harassment, recent news reports suggest. They often work in isolation, earn low pay and lack power in the workplace. Not only can unions shield them from harassment, so can HR.

HR professionals should pay particular attention to isolated workers to ensure that they are aware of the employer's complaint processes, said Amy Bess, an attorney with Vedder Price in Washington, D.C. "They also should provide targeted training to this group of workers on the company's anti-harassment policies and procedures. HR could also periodically check in with this group of workers to ensure that if they have concerns, they have a path to reporting issues."

Another factor to consider: "Those who do not speak English as a first language will be at risk of social isolation as well," added Jeanine Gozdecki, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in South Bend, Ind. They may not fully understand the avenues for filing complaints or understand that workplace policies prohibit certain behavior, she said.

Vulnerable Positions

Janitorial positions can make workers vulnerable to harassment. A janitor recently alleged in police reports and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge that while working at ABM, the country's largest custodial company, a manager sexually assaulted her at dusk. He threatened her with termination and deportation if she told anyone, so she initially said nothing until he assaulted her again. She alleged that the company had not clearly explained how to make a complaint. A second janitor said in the EEOC charge that the same manager had also sexually assaulted her. A third janitor also claimed in the charge that a different supervisor had tried to kiss her and take off her pants and had sexually harassed her, reported Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Housekeepers are vulnerable, too, since they often work alone in hotel rooms. At least one union is doing something to protect them. The Leaders of the Culinary Union reportedly will request panic buttons during labor contract negotiations for housekeepers working at hotels in Las Vegas to carry with them. An alleged sexual attack against a housekeeper in New York City led to panic buttons becoming mandatory there for unionized housekeepers beginning in 2013, reported CBS News. The devices already are required for housekeepers in Seattle and will be mandatory for them in Chicago by this summer.

Also vulnerable are farmworkers, according to a 95-page 2012 report from Human Rights Watch. It said most farmworkers interviewed had experienced sexual assault or harassment or knew others who had. Most said they had not reported the abuses, fearing reprisals.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Gig workers or independent contractors also often are targets of harassment, The New Yorker stated. "They have little institutional support and few, if any, supervisors. They are transient and easily replaceable as well," the article noted. A report by HoneyBook, a platform for freelance events, found that 54 percent of freelancer respondents were sexually harassed at work and 87 percent never reported their harassers, the article noted.

All employees who work alone and at odd hours—security guards, delivery truck drivers, maintenance staff and convenience store workers—are vulnerable to harassment, said Denise Heekin, an attorney with Bryant Miller Olive in Miami. So are home health care workers, real estate agents, meter readers and social workers, who all visit people's homes.

Annette Idalski, an attorney with Chamberlain Hrdlicka in Atlanta, said others who are vulnerable include "all professional employees, regardless of industry, who work late at the office."

Late hours increase the chances that a worker might be left alone with a harasser, said Tyler Stull, an attorney with Dunn Law in Miami. "A harasser will often request a meeting during which they will prey on an unsuspecting victim or even just wait until other co-workers have left."

Harassers often engage in misconduct when there are no witnesses around, agreed Janie Schulman, an attorney with Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles. This makes investigations challenging.

Security Steps

Supervisors should check in with employees who work alone throughout their shifts, whether by phone or text, and should wait for a reply to make sure there are no problems, Heekin recommended.

Readily accessible communication devices—such as a two-way radio, cellphone, or other device with GPS and emergency alert capabilities—is essential to make sure the lone employee stays connected and can get help quickly if there is an emergency. "The use of prominently displayed video cameras may deter a would-be aggressor," she added.

Security staff could conduct unscheduled safety checks for isolated employees, Bess said.

Companies with employees who work after hours should have a security officer available to accompany them to their cars, as sexual assault commonly happens in parking garages, Idalski noted.

Businesses may even teach all workers self-defense, Heekin observed. Self-defense training can prevent violence before it happens because aggressors may be less likely to attack if they know everyone has had this training and are worried they will get hurt. Such training also can boost employees' confidence and performance on the job. However, she said employers should weigh the benefits to employees against the risks that employees may get injured during the training or misuse the techniques on others.

Bess cautioned that self-defense training might send the wrong message, namely that the employer thinks employees are entirely responsible for their own safety while on the job.


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