Jean Blanton explains sexual harassment in the workplace

In recent months, several men and women have come forward across the U.S. accusing people of sexual misconduct in the workplace. It has started a social media movement with victims using #metoo.

Amy Mangold talks with attorney Jean Blanton about what constitutes sexual harassment and what should you do if you experience it in the workplace.

Transcript of interview:

Amy Mangold: In recent months, several men and women have broken their silence on sexual misconduct they've experienced in the workforce. Tonight, we take a look at what sexual harassment is and how the legal system addresses the problem. I'm joined tonight by Jean Blanton. She is a trial attorney with Ziemer, Stayman, Weitzel And Shoulders. Thanks for joining us, Jean. Well, first let's get beyond opinion and what exactly constitutes from a legal standpoint sexual harassment?" 

Jean Blanton: "Sexual harassment can range anywhere from an offensive joke to an unwanted touching. There's two types generally. From a legal standpoint, we refer to it as quid pro quo which is essentially asking for a sexual favor in exchange for a raise of some type of employment benefit or hostile work environment." 

Amy Mangold: "Alright, and what constitutes hostile work environment?" 

Jean Blanton: "Hostile work environment is severe, pervasive, not just an off hand joke or an off hand comment. It would have to be fairly severe and consistent. It can be not necessarily you're the direct target but impacted as a result of inappropriate behavior in the workplace." 

Amy Mangold: "Okay, and that include cartoons, pictures, teasing folks, all different kinds of things. Correct?" 

Jean Blanton: "Absolutely. And in fact, typically what we see is a little of all of those things in order to constitute a hostile work environment." 

Amy Mangold: "Now, I know a lot of employers have mandatory sexual harassment training. Is that a legal requirement? And if not, what should smaller employers do to protect their employees and even protect themselves from legal repercussions?" 

Jean Blanton: "Absolutely. It's not necessarily legal requirement. You're not in trouble if you don't do it. However, it's a preventable measure. It's an effort to educate your workforce what is acceptable and what is not. It's also an effort to be sure whether or not legal, recoverable action or not just to be sure that you're able to have a productable workforce. But there's not something impeding someone's ability to perform. Really, what has happened is most employers offer the training. They just don't offer the training, they require it. And also within the concept of that training, they will educate their employees what to do if they are victimized in any way or if they perceive that they are being victimized. And so they'll set up a complaint procedure, and they'll make sure everyone knows how to utilize that procedure if there is a problem." 

Amy Mangold: "And if they don't have one, probably a good time to be implementing one." 

Jean Blanton: "Absolutely. If nothing else, we've seen in the news lately is people are being more educated of what is appropriate and what is not. And so, you're employees are being educated outside of your workplace. It's time to examine your policies and make sure that you don't have a problem eternally." 

Amy Mangold: "So, times certainly have changed. What a perpetrator may have thought was a harmless joke in times passed may land them in the HR manager's office now. So, where does it cross the line? I know it can be a gray area. Where to people have to say 'Stop'?" 

Jean Blanton: "Really what we would say is if you feel if things are crossing the line from your standpoint, you feel as if you're being impacted personally, we would recommend from a victim's standpoint that they first hold the person that feel is the perpetrator to stop. Ask them to stop. If not, typically they should look through they employee handbook and look to see who complaint should be formulated to. If there isn't a procedured, than a trusted manager, supervisor. From the employer's standpoint, you really need to make sure that what is educational and what is not. What might not seem offensive to one person is extremely offensive to another. And while it may not constitute a legal action necessarily, it really does hamper productivity." 

Amy Mangold: "Now, I know from a victim's standpoint, so much goes into the decision to come forward. They worry about victim shaming. They worry about he said, she said types of things. They worry about lengthy and very personnel investigations. So, what would you say to someone who finds themselves in this type of situation? And are there parts of the process that help protect against having to deal with some issues that are such a roadblock for them." 

Jean Blanton: "Absolutely. Your typical complaint procedure is you go to HR. Typically, it's someone who's not involved. And so, you go to a human resources officer, you explain the situation, and from that point forward there's an investigation. The investigation is really to talk to someone who has experienced similar activities or to talk to the allege perpetrator and get their standpoint. Whether or not action is taken, you're still protected. The law prohibits any other employer, any other supervisor to retaliate against a person for making a complaint even if the complaint is not actionable. And so, you are protected. You can't be fired for complaining. If you are, you have a legal cause of action." 

Amy Mangold: "And very quickly, statute of limitations in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois?" 

Jean Blanton: "It varies greatly. And so, the best advice I could give you is if you feel like you have been a victim, talk to a lawyer. It could be as soon as 180 days. That's not a lot of time in the legal world. And so, it is imperative to take immediate action." 

Amy Mangold: "Alright, Jean Blanton, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate your time." 

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(This story was originally published November 2, 2017)

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