Panel Focuses on Sex Harassment in Workplace

Nico Cisneros, Centurion Staff

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The #MeToo movement may have started over a year ago, but its impact is still being felt everywhere, from the classroom to the workplace. But do students have the tools to deal with being in a #MeToo situation?
A professor asked this of BCCC’s Business Studies department and the Center for Student Employment and Career Development (CSECD). Both departments quickly realized that while BCCC has plenty of resources to prepare students for getting a job– such as resume editing and mock interviews– there are no resources on how to handle an inappropriate encounter in the workplace.
So the departments teamed up to address the issue, and on Nov. 14, students gathered to hear a panel of professional address the issue of harassment at work. The panel included Dr. Dekia Smith, Director of BCCC Counseling Services, Peter Smith, an employment attorney; and Patti Soisson, the Director of Operations for Home Helpers of Southeast PA.
“I felt it was important for students in the current environment in which we live in, to really understand how this impacts them,” noted Smith. “It’s a very different world than it was not too long ago.”
Soisson agreed. “ I thought it was a very powerful topic that needed to be addressed outside of the college, to have some outsiders come in and address it from our perspective,” she said.
The first question addressed was one people typically find the most daunting: how do you define harassment? Smith clarified that harassment is not discrimination; instead, it is something actionable. This means an employees has been put in a compromising situation, such as being promised a promotion in exchange for sexual favors (quid pro quo); or being constantly made uncomfortable by explicit or alluding comments (hostile work environment); or have been physically attacked. All these scenarios can be reported to human resources or other authorities to be investigated.
But what if someone is scared to come forward? Soisson advised that they grab a friend. “Tell your story to someone you really trust,” she said. “If you need to, take that friend with you to go to the proper channels.” Also, students should realize that as employees, they have certain rights– including protection from sexual harassment– that is typically outlined in their employee handbook. “Read your manual,” advised CSECD Director Sharon Stephens. “Typically, employers only cover the benefits and time operations during onboarding. They may not go through it page by page. But for you, as an employee, that is imperative.”
An employee handbook is also key to how employees can report sexual harassment. All the panelists and organizers agreed that you should go through your chain of command as described in this manual. Typically, this starts with a manager or supervisor, or an human resources (HR) rep. If you feel you aren’t being taken seriously, Smith said, then you can escalate it to the next level.
But what if you feel you can’t afford the legal battle that may ensue? Smith assured the audience that you do not need a lawyer to file a complaint. Agencies like the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can take your claim and investigate it, free of charge to you.
In fact, the (EEOC) has seen a spike in harassment cases this year: of the 66 lawsuits they filed regarding workplace harassment, 41 of them alleged sexual harassment. That’s over 50 percent more sexual harassment suits than the previous year. The business world, it seems, is definitely taking sexual harassment seriously. Smith observed that more and more employers are asking him to help them develop more sexual harassment policies and manuals. In the healthcare field, Soisson said, they noticed that they had to develop and implement more policies and procedures to protect their male nurses.
What was clear was that all panelists and even promoters believe people should come forward. “Just because it’s someone with a lot of letters after their name or have a position of power, they’re human and you shouldn’t put up with [harassment],” explained Soisson.
Smith agreed: “In the world that the students live in, that may be a professor, that may be a boss, they don’t want to get in trouble, they don’t want to make waves– but the important thing is that they shouldn’t just let it go,” he said. “They should come forward, they should try to address the issues, they should speak up. Because otherwise, they’re going to be part of the next MeToo movement.”

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