Companies are understandably looking for effective ways to prevent and address sexual harassment.  In a recent article, Bloomberg reported that interviews with more than thirty senior Wall Street executives revealed that many are adopting a controversial strategy: avoid traveling with women, avoid mentoring women, and, in some cases, avoid working with women altogether.  But, as is usually the case, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Title VII of the Civil Right Act prohibits both harassment and discrimination.  On the one hand, sexual harassment is defined as workplace conduct that “has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”  On the other hand, discrimination claims arise when an employee can demonstrate that a practice that was not intended to discriminate has a disproportionate adverse effect on minorities in the workplace, or when an employee can demonstrate that similarly-situated employees were treated differently.   Thus, if senior executives limit contact with their female colleagues – and therefore limiting opportunities for mentoring, advancement, and business development, while also allowing male colleagues the same access, companies may avoid a sexual harassment complaint – but they are walking themselves right into a sex discrimination complaint.

Discrimination is bad for business.  Mentorship relationships are most valuable when a senior-level employee becomes familiar with a younger employee’s work, gives her further opportunities, and is willing to advocate for her within the firm or company.  If women are a minority in an industry, then there simply are not enough women in senior positions to bring along those behind them.  Thus, in those industries, women rely on mentorship relationships with men in senior position.  These men have the knowledge, influence, and connections to make a real difference for their female colleagues.  If men in senior positions are unwilling to spend one-on-one time with young women, those women cannot advance. These women will likely move onto another company or industry, and the company not only loses its investment but also the opportunity to develop great talent. 

What are effective ways to prevent and address sexual harassment?  Instead of excluding women from important networking and mentorship opportunities, the best ways to reduce workplace harassment include participating in regular anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings; providing mechanisms to promptly and safely report incidents of harassment and discrimination; investigating and appropriate addressing corroborated claims of harassment and discrimination;  fostering a respectful, professional, and inclusive workplace; and refraining from using sex as a basis to make any decisions in the workplace.

For questions regarding sexual harassment and discrimination, contact our Sioux Falls, Sioux City, or Omaha office today.


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