By Bill Moore
It seems that regular headlines these days announce the horrible reality of sexual harassment in the workplace. As each day passes, more prominent individuals are identified for this vile practice. Unfortunately, it is not only people with celebrity status who engage in the practice.
As employers, we have the responsibility and legal obligation to ensure that sexual harassment is not tolerated in our companies. This has reminded me that all Vermont companies must have policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. Vermont employers face significant liability exposure for failure to maintain a workplace free from sexual harassment.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex.” The Commission further points out that “The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 deals with the issue and covers employers of 15 or more.
Title 21, Chapter 5, Subchapter 6 of the Vermont Statutes is the defining law for sexual harassment in Vermont law. The Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The law covers all Vermont public and private employers. Included in the law is the obligation for all employers to maintain a workplace that is free from sexual harassment.
Vermont law is very specific in terms of employers’ responsibilities. “Every employer shall adopt a policy against sexual harassment which shall include: (A) a statement that sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful; (B) a statement that it is unlawful to retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint of sexual harassment or for cooperating in an investigation of sexual harassment; (C) a description and examples of sexual harassment; (D) a statement of the range of consequences for employees who commit sexual harassment; (E) if the employer has more than five employees, a description of the process for filing internal complaints about sexual harassment and the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the person or persons to whom complaints should be made; and (F) the complaint process of the appropriate state and federal employment discrimination enforcement agencies, and directions as to how to contact such agencies.”
In addition, each employer must: “Post in a prominent and accessible location in the workplace, a poster providing, at a minimum, the elements of the employer’s sexual harassment policy required by subdivision (1) of this subsection.” Employers must also provide, “all employees an individual written copy of the employer’s policy against sexual harassment. “
According to Vermont statutes, “Sexual Harassment is a form of sex discrimination and means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: (a) submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment; or (b) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a component of the basis for employment decisions affecting that individual; or (c) the conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
While not mandated, it is a “best practice” for employers to dedicate at least one staff meeting per year to the topic of sexual harassment. Employers should also provide “Sexual Harassment” training to new hires.
Additional information and a required workplace poster can be found on the Vermont Department of Labor website or by consulting with an attorney.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law and must not be a part of the business work environment.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.