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Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

A man and woman sitting at a desk with a cup of coffee.

​In August, Lone Star Ambulance, a critical-care transportation company in San Antonio, settled a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for alleged sexual harassment and retaliation.

The company will pay $90,000 in damages and provide additional relief.

"The EEOC is committed to vigorously enforcing anti-discrimination laws on behalf of all workers," EEOC trial attorney Esha Rajendran said in a statement.

The lawsuit alleges that two female employees experienced verbal sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching and forced submission to sex as a condition of employment by executive managers and supervisors.

One of the women was forced to resign due to intolerable working conditions, while the other was fired after rejecting sexual advances from a supervisor and complaining about the harassment, the EEOC stated. The alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In addition to the monetary relief, Lone Star Ambulance is required to take steps to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment in its workplace. This includes adopting a written policy against employment discrimination, hiring an independent monitor to investigate all complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation, and conducting annual training on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"We appreciate Lone Star Ambulance's recognition of its responsibility to provide a harassment-free workplace, including its commitment to engage an independent investigator to handle complaints going forward," Rajendran said.

Examples of Sexual Harassment at Work

Between fiscal year 2018 and 2021, harassment charges, including those involving sexual harassment, made up about 35 percent of all complaints received by the EEOC. Nearly 80 percent of all sexual-harassment charges were filed by women.

Robyn Swirling is the founder and executive director of Works in Progress, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides technical assistance to organizations to create safe, harassment-free workplace environments. She said sexual harassment can come in many forms.

"It's important to remember that sexual harassment includes not only unwanted sexual advances or sexual commentary but also conduct that denigrates or shows hostility to individuals or to groups of people because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or other gender-related characteristics," Swirling explained.

According to the EEOC:

  • The sexual harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker or a nonemployee.
  • The victim isn't just the person harassed but can also be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

This behavior can include making inappropriate comments about a worker's clothing or displaying misogynistic cartoons above someone's desk. Swirling explained that sexual harassment can also be cross-racial, which occurs when the harasser and the target are different races.

"That harassment is overwhelmingly likely to be racialized itself, so the content of the harassment includes racial stereotypes," she said. "What can seem like one type of harassment may, in fact, cross multiple lines of discrimination."

Not All Training Programs Are Effective

Andrew M. Gordon, an attorney with the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said federal law provides employers with a defense to liability if they take proactive steps to prevent and correct sexual harassment and other forms of unlawful workplace harassment.

"A major element of this defense can be enhanced by training managers on how to prevent and correct workplace harassment," Gordon explained. "This type of preventative measure is the best way to mitigate risk when it comes to addressing inappropriate behavior in the workplace."

When conducting sexual-harassment training, organizations should:

  • Hold sessions during onboarding and at least once a year.
  • Define harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
  • Reinforce the company's anti-harassment policy.
  • Include strategies to prevent harassment and other abusive conduct.
  • Outline the effects of harassment on individuals.
  • Include practical examples and factual scenarios taken from case-study, news and media accounts.
  • Be tailored to the type of work environments that employees use.
  • Include bystander-intervention strategies, so that companies are providing their teams with the skills to actively cultivate and maintain a culture where inappropriate behavior isn't tolerated.
  • Offer additional resources on sexual harassment for employees.

But not all training programs are effective. Swirling said sexual-harassment training should be live—either in person or via webinar. Simply using a "computer program that people click through while barely paying attention" will not have the same effectiveness, she said.

"These may save money, but we know that they can actually do more harm than good by teaching people how to stay just on 'this side' of the legal line and get away with harassment, or by sending the message that this isn't really a priority of the company's leadership or culture," Swirling said.

Companies should also have robust policies prohibiting sexual and gender-based harassment, with clear examples of the types of prohibited behaviors, Swirling said. These policies are reviewed with new employees as part of onboarding as well as periodically during employment.

"Those policies should … emphasize that employees can and should report the misconduct the first or second time something inappropriate happens," she added, "so that action can be taken to address it and prevent the recurrence of such behavior well before we get into lawsuit territory."

The Society for Human Resource Management outlines procedures for handling sexual-harassment complaints. The resource also explains what managers and employees should do if they witness such harassment.


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