America is now seeing near daily revelations of the tremendous and detrimental toll of sexual harassment — physically, emotionally, financially and morally. Individuals and organizations must be held accountable for allowing such behavior to go unchecked. No organization is immune from such behavior or its consequences. This includes public institutions, like the Salt Lake County Jail. A harassment lawsuit recently filed by a former employee of the jail describes it as “a sex-saturated environment.”
The suit outlines instances of sexually offensive behavior and discrimination allegedly suffered by a 14-year employee who is seeking damages that would come out of public coffers, giving all county residents a stake in the case. Like other similar matters recently coming to the fore, this case hinges on the idea that the failure to stop such behavior from continuing is as bad as the behavior itself, offering a license to perpetrators. Regardless of the outcome in this case, not addressing harassment is socially and morally irresponsible.
It is painful, destructive and life-altering for those who suffer at the hands of others. That is reason enough to find solutions to stop the behavior. Secondarily, it is also bad for business. Not only do organizations face huge damage awards for allowing harassment to occur, but also a loss of credibility and goodwill. Public and private organizations must pursue a policy of zero tolerance concerning sexual harassment.
There are those who argue that sexual harassment can be hard to detect or deter — what one person might regard as an innocent encounter another person sees as criminal assault. In the law, and hopefully the workplace, there are measures of inappropriate behavior that, despite cultural or age orientations are possible to patrol.
Employees and employers may carry disputed cases and facts to a court of law, but this should not deter places of employment from seeking to eliminate unsolicited, unwanted and inappropriate words and behavior. There is always a spectrum of behavior and harm, and harassment can range from mild annoyance to systemic badgering.
The recent harassment cases involving media and entertainment figures have fueled rigorous public discussion about the prevalence of such behavior and how often it is overlooked. In the lawsuit against the Salt Lake County Jail, the plaintiff alleges she received sexually suggestive emails from a supervisor who she complained about to other managers. She alleges that the managers did little or nothing in response. Her claims describe a culture in which out-of-bounds behavior was tolerated, which sullies everyone in the command chain aware of the incidents. What should have jail managers done? What exact actions should be taken against a supervisor caught sending sexually oriented notes to an employee? Certainly, the choice of “no action at all” is not the right option.
Regardless of how this latest case plays out, the conduct alleged in the lawsuit is common in too many workplaces. The process of rooting it out, painful and embarrassing as it may be, is a healthy and vital exercise that can result in a better understanding of the scope of the problem, its causes and manifestations and may potentially help, at long last, in preventing it.