Nearly half of sexual harassers can go back to work

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Almost half of accused sexual harassers can go back to work after arbitrators or third-parties settle disputes, according to a new study.

The findings closely examine the outcomes of arbitration awards involving harassers, as well as providing insight as to whether arbitration is the best solution to addressing workplace harassment.

“With all of the issues our society is facing right now, I wanted to figure out why we weren’t doing a better job addressing harassment in the workplace,” says Stacy Hickox, associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. “I knew that it was challenging for employees to bring a claim of harassment to employers but wanted to know what employers are doing about actually responding.”

Hickox and coauthor Michelle Kaminski, associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, examined 60 arbitration cases in which employees accused of harassment challenged their punishment. In most cases, the company had discharged the employee and they wanted to return to work.

The researchers found that only 52% of the cases upheld the punishment of getting fired. In 13% of cases, companies allowed the accused harassers back to work without any punishment. In the other cases, 12% could come back to work with no back pay; 20% of the cases reduced the discipline to a suspension; and companies reduced 2% to a warning.

“I was very surprised by the number of people who were proven to be harassers and were allowed to come back to work,” Hickox says. “It is interesting that the employer’s anti-harassment policies play a part in whether the harasser’s discipline was upheld. Policies that included specific examples of harassment were more often associated with the discipline being upheld.”

The issue, Hickox says, is that accused harassers have rights as well and can claim companies disciplined them without just cause. Some return to work because employers fail to provide enough proof that the harassment occurred, while companies reinstate others because arbitrators are wedded to employers’ policies—with no gray areas. Arbitrators also reinstate a harasser because he or she has long tenure with the employer.

“To be sure that these harassers aren’t allowed back into the workplace, employers need to look much more closely at harassment policies, as well as the power they give arbitrators in resolving these cases,” Hickox says.

Hickox and Kaminski found that, in many cases, a company thought their employee accused of harassment should have received a tougher punishment; however, an arbitrator must follow the corporate policies and if a company’s policy doesn’t clearly prohibit the harassment, the arbitrator can’t enforce it. Therefore, the researchers recommend that companies carefully craft their anti-harassment policies.

While arbitration can serve as a reasonable alternative to taking harassment cases to court, there are challenges that the current arbitration process presents. Arbitration takes place in private, which means that other employees and the public may never know the outcome. Additionally, Hickox says that most employees don’t look very closely at new hire paperwork—or what rights they are signing away by agreeing to arbitration of all employment disputes.

“I believe that arbitration is a fair process and can be effective, but I’m a firm believer in consequences,” Hickox says. “You can train people on harassment until they’re blue in the face, but until there are clearer, more stringent policies from employers, the issue will continue.”

The research will appear in the Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal.

Source: Michigan State University