As unions search for ways to modernize their brands, they’re taking on issues like sexual harassment in the workplace. The challenge they face in appearing to be truly concerned about this particular issue is that some union leaders were recently accused of being sexual harassers. It’s critical that you understand what constitutes sexual harassment, train your employees as part of the process of developing a positive culture, and put a system in place for quickly addressing inappropriate behaviors that come to light.
Talking the Talk
Sexual harassment is sex discrimination according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, including private businesses and membership clubs, government agencies and labor unions. Men and women can be sexually harassed.
Sexual harassment, including abuse and misconduct, is all about unwelcome behaviors. It occurs in every type of organization. However, it seems even more unpalatable when an organization builds a brand based on equality, equity and human dignity, and its people act otherwise. Unions are a good example. Recently, two of the largest unions had senior union leaders resign after being accused of sexual harassment, and other top leaders were accused of allowing a toxic culture to thrive.
The first major report involved the resignation and/or firing of four senior officers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in October 2017 for sexual harassment. The four officials were leaders in the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign, which, ironically, had promised to end rampant sexual harassment in fast food restaurants. The SEIU, AFL-CIO, SAG-AFTRA (the union representing movie and TV actors and broadcast journalists), and the UFCW all have labor leaders accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct.
In most cases, the women alleging sexual harassment say it was an open secret that particular men had been abusive for years. Through word-of-mouth, a woman knew to either avoid being alone with him or found another job. Various claims read like an EEOC list of prohibited behaviors: using epithets to refer to women, men forcing themselves on women, groping, sending lewd text messages or emails, threatening women with their jobs if they refuse to have sex, making suggestive remarks, pressuring a woman for a date, etc.
Not all sexual harassment is so blatant. Sometimes, the male manager doesn’t realize that regularly telling sexual jokes or innocently but regularly touching women (like putting an arm around a waist) without consent is making women subordinates uncomfortable. It’s frequent unwelcome behavior, making it sexual harassment. A quid pro quo sexual harassment situation is one in which someone makes submission to sexual conduct of some type a condition of an employment decision. A hostile environment is one in which people feel intimidated or threatened physically and emotionally due to unwelcome sexual advances and have difficulty doing their jobs as a result.
It Should Never Happen
You can learn from union behavior. First, your managers should be fully informed as to what constitutes unwelcome behaviors. Conduct of a sexual nature can be verbal, written, physical, nonverbal or visual. Second, engaged and empowered employees in a positive workplace culture know they can bring concerns to your management and have them addressed. Third, it’s crucial to never ignore even small indications that sexual harassment is occurring in your workplace. The EEOC says the law doesn’t prohibit things like offhand remarks or simple teasing, but it’s these kinds of unprofessional behaviors that cause problems. Transparent anti-harassment policies, effective communication systems, good leadership and impartial grievance procedures are all tools for creating a positive work culture.
Despite their internal problems, unions are already touting themselves as the organizations that can help the women who are working in environments where sexual harassment is occurring. To keep your organization union-proof, you need to ensure your employees, from top to bottom, go through harassment training because sexual harassment simply should not occur in the workplace.