The Rise of Same-Sex Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and What Employers Can Do About It

The Changing Face of Sexual Harassment

Regardless of accuracy, in the past sexual harassment has largely been viewed through the lens of being a “women’s issue.” It seemed like primarily women came forward to address sexual harassment they’d experienced among their colleagues and bosses, and in many cases the accused harassers were men.

sexual harassment same sex harassmentThat outdated idea is prevalent in how sexual harassment training is created. Videos and training materials often depict females in the victim role and males in the harasser role, but evidence is coming to light showing that perhaps this isn’t the only area employers should be focusing their attention and their training.

Same-sex and male-on-male sexual harassment claims are becoming more widely talked about, and it’s posing an issue for not just how employers handle these situations, but how they train employees to avoid them.

Male Sexual Harassment Claims

According to the Legal Report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), compiled in 2013, as of 2011 sexual harassment charges filed by men doubled over the past 20 years.

In 2011, these claims made up 16.3% of all sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It was the largest percentage of male-filed charges since the EEOC started reporting this data in 1992.

The SHRM pointed out the rise in these claims may not mean there’s just more harassment of this type happening in the workplace, but it could also point to the idea that men are more comfortable coming forward and making complaints about sexual harassment. SHRM also shed light on the training inadequacies surrounding this issue, saying the following:

“Finally, some companies are saving money by cutting back on employee training, including harassment training for supervisors, so supervisors have less awareness of and fewer tools for dealing with harassing situations, especially the less common form of sexual harassment involving a male victim.”

What Sexual Harassment Looks Like

What can be tricky about same-sex sexual harassment, and issues involving men, is that it can be more challenging to really understand what it looks like, particularly compared to our traditional ideas of what harassment on women appears as.

Same-sex and male sexual harassment can take varying forms, but SHRM points out some of the common types, which include:

  • The most obvious form of male-on-male harassment, of course, happens if unwanted sexual advances are made.
  • When it becomes a grayer area is when a male perpetrator attempts to embarrass or haze another male employee through sexually-charged behaviors or interactions. Many times sexual harassment occurs through the need to embarrass, humiliate or belittle one’s coworkers.
  • What can frequently be brushed off as “horseplay” may be viewed as sexual harassment, particularly if there are sexual undertones that come as part of this.
  • If harassment is inflicted on someone who is gay, this can also amount to not just sexual harassment, but illegal sexual orientation harassment.

As well as same-sex harassment involving males, while it may be less common, there have also been recent high-profile cases of female-on-male sexual harassment.

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services

1998 represented a significant year in same-sex and male sexual harassment issues, as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. The ruling demonstrated the concept sexual harassment claims can be brought where the perpetrator and the victim are of the same sex.

The situation occurred as Joseph Oncale, an employee of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, reported being sexually harassed by colleagues, one of whom was his supervisor. The harassment included verbal assaults, attempts to publically humiliate Oncale, and sexually-charged physical attacks.

The Supreme Court made the distinction in its ruling that ordinary horseplay or flirtation in the workplace may not amount to harassment, but when it leads to an environment that’s hostile or abusive, it becomes illegal, regardless of the gender of anyone involved.

Same-Sex Harassment Training

There have been many high-profile cases of same-sex workplace harassment in the past decade or so. Even corporations like Wells Fargo and The Cheesecake Factory aren’t immune, and it’s important for employers to not only recognize the rise in these issues but understand how to combat and prevent them.

In many recent settlements, which have included a 2010 settlement by McDonald’s and a case involving the Cintas Corp., the harasser was a supervisor. This highlights the importance of not just training employees on same-sex harassment issues, but also focusing your efforts on supervisors.

Consider these best practices for same-sex workplace harassment training:

  • The first thing you can do is update your policies and make sure they’re clear on not just more commonly thought-of forms of harassment, but also same-sex harassment. In training, explain the definition of sexual harassment training while included information about same-sex issues.
  • If you have outdated training that portrays harassment only occurring between a man and a woman, it’s best to do a complete overhaul. E-Learning provides an inexpensive way to completely revamp your training to reflect the modern workplace.
  • Train supervisors on concepts of bias that can lead to mishandling of same-sex harassment. Training supervisors on the proper protocol to deal with harassment claims is an essential element of coursework, but it’s important for them to recognize they may have biases that impact how they handle claims made by male victims. Recognizing these biases and then learning how to properly handle them is a good way to ensure all harassment claims are treated equally in the workplace.
  • Make training challenging, so that supervisors and employees are pushed to think critically, evaluate their own behavior and build better judgment to deal with a variety of situations.

If you’re only focusing training efforts toward male-on-female sexual harassment, you’re leaving yourself open to potentially destructive liability. The modern workplace is one that doesn’t allow for any type of male-on-female harassment, but also one without same-sex harassment. For you to have the best  possible harassment training in-place, you need to make these concepts part of what you present to supervisors and employees.

Blurred lines and a lack of training are two of the biggest culprits of sexual harassment in the workplace, which can cost employers millions of dollars, yet the solution can be as simple as a comprehensive online training program addressing a variety of issues.

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