Even as the overall number of complaints drops, men are increasingly calling foul. What are you doing to protect your company from lawsuits and liability?
It's still something of a taboo subject – especially for men – but in the past 15 years, the number of men filing sexual harassment complaints has doubled.
During fiscal year 2009, 16.0 percent of all sexual harassment cases were filed by men in the U.S., the highest percentage ever, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That comes fresh on the heels of the record number of such complaints filed by men (more than 2,200) set in 2008. The rise is despite the fact that the overall number of sexual harassment complaints has declined.
The claims cut across all industries: "I've seen very well-educated, CEO-types accused of harassment, as well as factory line workers," Ron Chapman Jr., a Dallas employment lawyer whose clients have included FedEx Office and Texas Instruments, tells Inc.com.
The government, for one, is taking the complaints seriously.
"While some people may think sexual harassment of male employees is a joke, the issue is real," says David Grinberg, a spokesperson for the EEOC. "We are seeing more of it, and such conduct has serious legal consequences for employers."
Why the rise in complaints? Experts points to a range of factors. In 1994, the Demi Moore-Michael Douglas film Disclosure highlighted female-on-male harassment, grossing $214 million in the process. In 1998, the Supreme Court proclaimed same-sex harassment unlawful in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. The case involved a Louisiana man – Joseph Oncale – who claimed to have been verbally abused and eventually sodomized with a bar of soap by his male manager while working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The first ever court case involving sexual harassment of men: In 1995, the EEOC sued Domino's Pizza after a female supervisor sexually harassed a male store manager – she would caress his shoulders and neck and pinch his buttocks, the agency said in a statement – then fired him. A Tampa court awarded the man $237,000 in damages.)
Don't underestimate the impact of the recession either. From September 2008 to January 2010, 4.4 million American men lost their jobs, compared to 2.3 million women, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. The link: Men's sexual harassment claims rose in states with higher unemployment rates, and dipped in states with lower ones.
Once upon a time, men who were harassed might quit their jobs and find new ones. But now, says employment lawyer Greg Grant of Washington DC's Shulman Rogers, they're more likely to turn to the legal system. These men still need to "pay the bills and support families," he told HR Management.
Chapman, the Dallas lawyer, tells Inc.com it's "silly" to suggest there's suddenly a wave of increased harassment – only an increase in reporting of claims.
Thanks partly to the amount of time and money employers spend on anti-harassment training, men are more aware of their rights when a co-worker, male or female, makes them uncomfortable, he says. "Second, there is now less of a stigma toward men who complain about harassment, whether the harassment is coming from a man or a woman," Chapman says.
The legal principles for men's sexual harassment cases are the same as for women. The alleged harassment has to be severe or pervasive, and – this is key – based on the target's sex. "Just because a boss is a jerk doesn't mean he or she is engaging in sexual harassment," Chapman says. Telling a single sexual joke to a group of male and female employees isn't harassment, but repeatedly bombarding a male employee with sexual jokes and comments – and targeting the male employee because of his sex – could rise to the level of being sexual harassment.
In practice, claims brought by men can be harder to prove, he says. But to protect yourself from lawsuits and liability, Chapman says companies "absolutely need an up-to-date anti-harassment policy. Those policies need to be updated every two years or so." (The frequent updates are needed to keep up with subtle changes in law. For example, in 2006's Burlington Northern v. White, the Supreme Court lowered the standard for what it takes to prove retaliation, holding that changed job duties could suffice.)
Chapman also suggests training on the company's anti-harassment policy. "The training helps limit the number of incidents that can give rise to a claim," he says. It also "helps position the company for a successful defense should a claim be asserted."
"You can't always prevent employees from engaging in misbehavior, but you can do things to limit such incidents," Chapman says
Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.