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BIOLOGY, CULTURE, “ME TOO” AND THE LAW

BIOLOGY, CULTURE, “ME TOO” AND THE LAW

Harassment in the Workplace

As long as humans have existed, the fact that people are physically attracted to one another has affected their behavior.  There have always also been people that have used their superior strength to get their way.  These forces are evident in the workplace resulting in everything from consensual affairs, to unwanted harassment, to incidents of physical violence.

For many years, the law has provided tools designed to prevent or at least discourage unwanted sexual or physical harassment at work and in society at large. For example, employees that are fired or demoted for refusing to participate in an unwanted sexual relationship with their supervisor can sue the offending party and possibly the employer.  Civil and criminal remedies are available to victims of physical violence.

While these tools are not new, they are now in the news almost every day as a result of an interesting cultural evolution we are all witnessing.  Until fairly recently, many women that were victims of unwanted sexual advances or physical intimidation would simply keep quiet in the interest of career advancement, or simply to avoid the embarrassment of going public.  The Me Too movement has changed the landscape.  As Katie Couric recently put it “ a long dormant volcano is erupting.”  In increasing numbers, both women and men are reporting without fear on incidents that previously might never have come to light.  People are less afraid to go public and more likely to resort to their legal remedies.

As examples, for years we all saw Harvey Weinstein smiling at Hollywood awards ceremonies.  Underneath the veneer, he was engaging in some pretty horrific conduct, because Hollywood  chose to have its collective head in the sand.  Suddenly times have changed: The New York Attorney General has filed a civil lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Company alleging that Mr. Weinstein sexually harassed and abused women and employees for years.  It is alleged that the company’s executives and Board of Directors were aware of what was going on and failed to stop it.   The once super-powerful company has filed for bankruptcy.  Further, rape and related criminal charges against Mr. Weinstein are being considered in both Los Angeles and New York.

More locally, Representative Elizabeth Esty is feeling the brunt of this cultural shift.  Her former Chief of Staff, Tony Baker had been involved in what began as a consensual affair with a female staffer in representative Esty’s office.  The relationship went sour and Mr. Baker was accused of sexually abusing, physically striking and repeatedly threatening the staffer.  It became apparent that Representative Esty failed to take any action against Mr. Baker for three months following the incidents and supported him in various ways after terminating his employment.  Following the political and public outcry that arose when this history became public, Representative Esty announced that she will not seek re-election this fall.  It’s particularly ironic that she has always been identified as a strong supporter of women’s rights.

There are lessons here for both employers and employees.  Employers need to take a no-nonsense approach to maintaining and enforcing their anti-harassment policies.  More than ever,  employers that conduct less than prompt and complete investigations and impose less than appropriate sanctions against wrong-doers will likely pay the price in court.  Employees that are victimized by inappropriate conduct at work need no longer cower in fear:  they should consult with an employment attorney to learn about their rights and the remedies that the law provides.