Uncovering an employer’s responsibility to protect vulnerable female workers
No one should have to worry about their personal safety while at work. The standards for a safe work environment for commercial cleaning crews differs greatly depending on worksite and the scope of the job, and includes a plethora of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards that employers must follow to protect their employees. Hazard prevention on topics such as noise control, safe lifting procedures, avoiding exposure to toxic substances, and avoiding personal fall hazards are all standard precautions, but for vulnerable female janitors who work the night shift, a heightened level of protection is required. Ensuring females are protected from intruders, given access to another employee on the same floor, providing adequate lighting of the work area, catering to individual health needs and safety concerns, and just keeping the lines of communication open with a trusted supervisor are just a few of accommodations commercial cleaning companies make for their employees.
But what happens when the chain of command breaks down and a trusted supervisor takes advantage of a vulnerable female employee? Last summer’s PBS Frontline special, “Rape On The Night Shift” uncovered the sexual abuse of women, employed as janitors at night. The episode profiled victims, their assailants—who were most often their direct supervisors—and subsequently what happened when local authorities and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tried to prosecute the accused assailant and their employer. This is noteworthy to all commercial cleaning enterprises because, according to the EEOC, “An employer is subject to vicarious liability for unlawful harassment if the harassment was committed by a supervisor with immediate—or successively higher—authority over the employee.”
This human resource management problem is being combated by law officials, OSHA, and through sensitivity training offered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but cases of sexual harassment and abuse are still ubiquitous. And despite education in the workplace, new laws brought about by case precedence, and even sensationalized made for TV specials, sexual harassment charges and EEOC cases are still filed by employees every year. According to a joint report from the EEOC and the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEP) released last year, there were just under sixteen-thousand reports of sexual harassment in 1997. Almost twenty years later in 2015, over eleven thousand cases were reported. That’s a drop in EEOC cases reported by almost thirty-percent, but the fines charged to the employers who allow this activity to prevail in their companies has actually increased from forty-nine-million in 1997 to fifty-two million dollars in 2015. Decreased EEOC cases of reports accompanying an increase in fines demonstrates the government’s intensified commitment to punishing employers who allow, ignore—or through apathy—support a sexually charged workplace. And the bottom line is, despite protective agencies best efforts, sexual harassment and assaults still occur throughout the US.
Human resource management must be aware of the culture in the workplace. Whether you agree or disagree, the court sees sexual harassment no differently than any other workplace hazard, and if employers allow the hazard to go uncorrected, they will be held accountable. So what is the best defense against harassment claims? A good offense. That means, employers must be aware of issues and take steps to prevent a sexually charged environment from occurring in the first place.
Decreased cases of reports accompanying an increase in fines demonstrates the government’s intensified commitment to punishing employers who allow, ignore—or through apathy—support a sexually charged workplace.
Some suggestions to prevent EEOC case from being filed include not permitting two employees to work alone and conducting a background check on all employees, especially those in supervisory roles who have authority over others. The SEIU is preparing appropriate sensitivity training material to ensure employees, owners, and supervisors are aware and know how to handle sexual harassment if it occurs. Using the SEIU guidelines, all commercial cleaning contractors should have their own in-house sensitivity training program. This is no different from any safety training program and just as easily implemented. It can be a quick half-day seminar reinforced with regular workplace meetings thereafter. Make sure all employees have a direct line to report any abuse. Larger companies have gone so far as to install 800 hotlines. Smaller companies can have the same affect with complaint boxes outside the human resources office, or posting methods to inform management of any problems.
If you should be so unfortunate to have a sexual harassment complaint, here are the SEIU recommends you take the following actions.
1. Investigate immediately. Conduct a thorough, professional investigation into the allegation. This will have one of the following outcomes:
a. The allegation is baseless.
b. The allegation cannot be proved or disproved, but you will still have the documentation for future reference.
c. The allegation is true and appropriate action can be taken.
2. Write a thorough after-action report documenting the complaint, the interviews taken, the facts as ascertained, and any allegation that could not be proved.
3. Follow this with appropriate action at the worksite. This might be separating the parties involved, or more if required.
4. Counsel both parties as to how to avoid the problem in the future. One party may consider his or her actions as innocent and not abusive. Another may be over sensitive and consider any unwanted attention as harassment. In the minds of each, this perception is real whether it actually is or not.
And finally, there is the possibility of an employee trying to game the system with a malicious complaint. The claims could be made in order to prevent any future disciplinary action, or for monetary gain, but if a commercial cleaning employer suspects this is occurring, an employer’s responsibilities to report and act upon allegations do not change, nor does their responsibility to make immediate changes in providing a safe and non-hostile work environment.