Years ago, when I was a cop, if a person started their story with the words, “I was drunk and leaving the bar when…”, you just knew the story was going to have a tragic end. Recently we read an article that began with these words, “A divorce lawyer is accused of masturbating...” We knew that story wasn’t going to end well either. It didn’t.
Attorney Shane Taylor, 51, was both sued and arrested in Alabama after a former paralegal reported he masturbated in front of her and demanded oral sex. The criminal charges appear related to a different incident involving a domestic dispute.
The Sun reports, “She claims that he once pinned her up against a desk while groping her breasts and buttocks. On another occasion, he allegedly exposed himself to her before stripping naked and lying on the floor masturbating while sipping on a beer.”
While all of these allegations are extremely disturbing and serious, the victim claims that Taylor sexually assaulted her and is guilty of other crimes including battery and invasion of privacy.
If convicted or found liable by a civil jury for sexual harassment Taylor could also lose his license to practice law.
Obviously, anyone who is the direct victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment has a right to sue. What many other workers don’t realize that other workers also have claims for working in a what is called a hostile environment.
We thought that masturbation in the workplace was a no brainer. If you do it expect to be fired, sued, arrested or all of the above. Last fall, however, many people on social media came to the defense of Jeffrey Toobin, the now former writer for the New York who was fired after masturbating during a Zoom meeting.
One anonymous, self proclaimed media personality said it was “no big deal” and “everyone does it.” [If it is no big deal, we remain puzzled why the person posting the message didn’t want to be named.]
While many people do masturbate, they don’t do it on camera or where others at work can see. Like a Zoom call.
Intrigued by the comment that “everyone does it” at work, we did a little digging. Apparently, many do. A survey in timeout.com found that about one in three folks admit to having done it work. While that number was surprising, it still doesn’t justify laying down on the office floor and “performing a solo act” for a subordinate. Especially one that is clearly not interested.
Any kind of sexual activity in the workplace creates a hostile work environment, even if the person viewing such activity isn’t the intended recipient. Both the actor and the employer can be held liable. Holding the employer liable, however, requires the employer to have both known about the conduct and the subsequent failure to take remedial action.
Is My Employer Responsible for the Actions of a Guest or Contractor?
Another important question is whether an employer becomes responsible for the actions of a guest or contractor on the work premises.
We are aware of a server in a Wisconsin Hooters restaurant who was upset that a drunk patron was intentionally exposing himself in the restaurant. The manager told the man to put his junk away but the man refused. Once it became clear that the manager was not going to take action, the patron become bolder in his actions. You can probably guess what the patron did next.
Is Hooters responsible for the sexual harassment and hostile work environment? Yes. The manager’s failure to take action is enough. It’s not enough for the restaurant to say its manager told the offender to zip it up. Once it became clear the offender wasn’t listening and his conduct was escalating, the manager should have asked the patron to leave or called police. (The best course of action would have been to immediately remove the patron and ensure that he was trespassed from the property.)
Employers should have an anti-harassment policy that includes misconduct by guests, visitors and independent contractors or other workers who may be on the premises. Employers should also be vigilant enough to detect harassing conduct without waiting for a complaint. Once there is a complaint, managers must be diligent in their investigation and response. Employees should also feel confident that their complaints will be addressed.
Of course, employees who believe they are suffering from harassment should promptly report their concerns.
What is a Hostile Workplace and Can I Sue?
Considering how many hours per week we spend working, when your workplace becomes toxic, it can be one of the worst experiences on earth. While we all have a mental image of a toxic workplace, the first step is defining what a hostile workplace is in the eyes of the law. For this post we will use Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Know, however, that all fifty states have their own laws too.
Generally, courts say a hostile workplace exists when enduring misconduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or when the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a situation that would seem intimidating, hostile, or abusive to reasonable people.
Examples of misconduct include racial slurs, offensive jokes, inappropriate touching, intimidation and sexual language. We included in our list of actionable misconduct racial slurs since a hostile work environment need not be based on sexual discrimination. Employers have a legal obligation to maintain a workplace free of harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, and disability. Employers become liable if they are aware of hostile workplace but fail to take reasonable steps to correct the problem.
Are You the Victim of a Hostile Workplace Environment?
If you are miserable at work because of a hostile work environment and your employer has failed to take corrective action, you may be entitled to substantial damages. You need not quit in order to bring a claim.
To learn more, visit our industry group subpages or our faq page for general information. Ready to see if you have a claim? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 888.249.6944. All inquiries kept strictly confidential.
[Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash]