Our employees went through sexual-harassment training several years ago, and it emphasized complaints filed by female employees. All my current employees are male. Do I have to update our sexual-harassment training if we have no female employees? -- J.B., Havertown, Pa.
Sexual harassment is gender neutral. That means a complaint can be filed by a man or a woman against a man or a woman, and it doesn't have to be based on a sexual proposition, says Karen Ward, attorney and principal of The General Counsel, a placement agency for in-house lawyers based in Newport Beach, Calif.
"According to a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual-harassment complaints filed by men against other men are at an all-time high," Ward says. The EEOC stats show that total complaints filed are on the rise for the first time in four years. About one-third of the total are gender-based harassment complaints, and of those, 15.4% were filed by men, Ward says. Many of them allege harassment by other men.
While Ward says she doesn't think that instances of harassment have increased, she does believe that the tolerance level for harassing behavior has decreased. "With the increasing sexual-harassment training requirements and the overall awareness of the issue by the public, a new norm has been created in the workplace," she says, "a norm in which men are less willing to tolerate being told to act 'like one of the guys.'"
"I often hear of jokes and comments being made that are inappropriate for the workplace, but the defense is, 'It was between friends and it was just a bunch of guys in the conversation, so how could anyone have been offended?' I think some of those men are offended, and they're now speaking out about it," Ward says.
Male employees may be more willing these days to state they're offended by off-color jokes, sexual comments, or gender stereotyping—whether they're directed at women or men. "Employers must be aware of any off-color or potentially offensive behavior by their employees. Additionally, any training you offer employees should cover the fact that men also file sexual-harassment claims," Ward says. The training should emphasize that all employees need to act in the utmost professional manner, whether they're around someone of the same sex or the opposite sex.