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West Virginia businesses tuning up harassment policies

By FRED PACE

HD Media/The Logan Banner

LOGAN, W.Va. — As allegations of sexual harassment have mounted against high-profile people from Hollywood to Washington, all businesses should be taking a close look at their policies and practices related to the issue, local employment lawyers say.

The tough question employers should try to answer is whether the policies they have in place against harassment and unethical workplaces are sufficient, as well as training, enforcement, discipline and termination procedures, according to Steven Snyder, senior counsel at the law firm Jenkins Fenstermaker in Huntington.

Over the past two months, a number of powerful men have been fired or placed on suspension over allegations of sexual misconduct. Reports about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein seemed to open a floodgate of accusations, leading to the firing of Matt Lauer by NBC and other entertainment and media celebrities, as well as the resignations of other business and political leaders.

The wave of sexual misconduct reports also has ignited discussions in workplaces across the United States.

Snyder has over 25 years of experience counseling and representing clients in all facets of labor and employment law matters. He has represented both employers and employees in employment litigation. Snyder says companies need to take a look at policies concerning workplace harassment and discrimination to make sure they have effective policies, training and enforcement.

“It’s always prudent for businesses to look at harassment and discrimination policies to make sure they are effective,” he said. “They should also be making sure that training and enforcement of policy regarding complaints is consistent.”

Often, Snyder says, company policies are not in line with the law.

“Also, I have found in some cases employees are not being trained on company policies regarding behavior in the workplace,” Snyder said. “Some companies are not doing proper investigations, and others are not enforcing overall compliance of all policies regarding this issue consistently, which could lead to a lawsuit.”

Snyder says effective policy, training, enforcement and leadership are the keys to preventing potential legal problems.

“With all of this national attention on these issues, now is a good time for businesses, both small and large, to take a good look at what their policies are regarding allegations of wrongdoing in the workplace,” he said. “Policy, training and enforcement are tied together by leadership at the company. The leadership must be strong and consistent and be ready to stand behind its decisions in an ethical and legal manner.”

In an unusual move for a large company, Facebook on Friday publicly released its policies against workplace harassment and bullying, including its enforcement procedures and how it investigates complaints. The company says it wants to help other companies create better policies and ideally prompt them to publish their own procedures, too.

“We don’t think we are perfect. We don’t think we have all the answers,” said Lori Goler, the company’s vice president of people. But she said companies should “come together to make sure that we all learn from each other.”

Facebook itself was sued for sex discrimination and harassment in 2015 by a former employee who said she was wrongfully terminated in 2013 after she complained about being harassed. The woman later dropped the suit, and Facebook has maintained no wrongdoing.

Snyder recommends companies take action with all harassment and unethical workplace complaints.

“Victims of sexual harassment and other bad behavior in the workplace must feel free to come forward in an environment free from ostracism or retribution,” he said.

He also recommends that employers not overreact to allegations.

“I don’t recommend employers rushing to judgment or having a trigger finger, but instead conduct a very prompt, thorough investigation that reaches solid conclusions based on the facts available,” he said.

Dan Eaton, an employment attorney and instructor of business ethics at San Diego State University, agrees that clear guidelines and consistent implementation are the key.

“Sexual harassment policies, like ethics policies, are only as good as the managers who implement them and are responsible for making sure there is broad compliance,” he told The Associated Press recently. For a policy to be effective, he said, it has to be applied consistently – and if wrongdoing is found, there have to be consequences that are disclosed “not only to the person who complained but to the entire workplace.”

Training is also helpful for workers to discuss and learn about what may or may not be inappropriate.

Steve Wyard, a veteran sales associate for a Los Angeles company who was interviewed by the AP, said he understands that a “put-out-or-lose-your-job overture” is clear sexual harassment. But he is less certain about more casual comments.

“Have we gotten to the point now where men can’t say, ‘That’s a nice dress’ or ‘Did you do something with your hair?'” Wyard said.

Experts and attorneys agree that many workers need help with the gray areas.

“As an employer you want everyone to feel comfortable in the workplace, and sometimes that takes an element of communication and lots of training,” said Xavier Staggs, also an attorney at Jenkins Fenstermaker.

Staggs and Snyder both say jokes, commenting on an employee’s appearance and other behaviors employees may think are acceptable are in fact not.

“There is a large spectrum of behaviors in the workplace that are unacceptable, so we want to provide training for those that may want it and offer seminars to both employers and employees on the do’s and don’ts in the workplace,” Snyder said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, from 8:30 to 11 a.m., the employment attorneys at Jenkins Fenstermaker will present a free seminar for employers entitled, “How to protect your company and your co-workers from sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.” The seminar will be held at the law firm’s office at 325 8th St., Huntington. To register for the event, send an email with your name and phone number to: [email protected] or call 304-399-9728 and ask for Aaron.

“I think it’s a good thing that we are having these discussions and asking these questions,” said Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Without dialogue and education, uncertainty can lead to mistakes, or worse, abuse from people with bad intentions. By having these discussions, which can be difficult, I believe we can create a more professional and more equitable workplace.”

Bissett says the chamber is also planning a symposium on sexual harassment and other unacceptable behaviors in the workplace sometime in early 2018.

“Employers want to do the right thing, so it’s always smart to be better educated,” he said.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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