Vermont has a new sexual harassment law aimed at providing employees – including volunteers, interns and independent contractors – with greater legal protection from workplace sexual harassment. Governor Phil Scott signed the bill H.707 into law on May 30. It goes into effect on July 1, 2018.
As a result of the new legislation, many businesses and organizations will likely be changing their workplace policies. Of note, the law bans two employment practices that have the effect of silencing targets of workplace sexual harassment. The law prohibits employers from requiring employees or job candidates to waive their rights to disclose incidents of sexual harassment. And employers can no longer prohibit individuals who make sexual harassment complaints from working for the employer or an affiliate after a sexual harassment settlement has been reached.
Here are some other ways the new law may affect Vermont employers and workers:
∙ All supervisors and managers, including those who oversee or contract with volunteers, interns and independent contractors, must ensure the working relationship is free from sexual harassment.
∙ A sexual harassment settlement must state that it does not prevent the employee from reporting sexual harassment to an appropriate governmental agency, complying with a discovery request or testifying at a hearing or trial related to a claim of sexual harassment.
∙ The Attorney General and Human Rights Commission can audit workplaces to determine whether the employer is complying with the new sexual harassment law.
∙ The Attorney General and Human Rights Commission will develop and manage a complaint hotline and web portal for reporting sexual harassment or workplace discrimination.
∙ The law provides $125,000 for the Vermont Commission on Women to develop a public outreach and education program, including best practices for reporting and preventing sexual harassment.
EEOC reconvenes its task force on workplace harassment
As employers in Vermont, California, New York and many other states and municipalities prepare to comply with stronger anti-harassment laws, it may be useful to review some of the recommendations made by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, which published a report in 2016.
The work of the task force is continuing. On June 11, members reconvened at the agency’s Washington headquarters for a meeting entitled, “Transforming #MeToo into Harassment-Free Workplaces.” Task force members and panelists discussed how employers can and have been transforming their organizations to prevent and stop harassment. We will discuss the results of the meeting in a future post once they become available.
One of the key takeaways in the task force’s 2016 report is the role of workplace culture in addressing and preventing workplace harassment. Workplace culture, the task force says, is the biggest influence on whether organizations actively prevent harassment or allow it to persist. The task force also emphasizes the importance of anti-harassment training, recommending that it be available “on a dynamic and repeated basis to all employees.”
Other “promising practices” to help employers develop and refine their anti-harassment efforts include:
- Getting the active and visible support of executive leaders, who regularly communicate their commitment to preventing workplace harassment.
- Developing a written anti-harassment policy that is comprehensive, easy-to-understand, and communicated on a regular basis to all employees.
- Implementing a formal complaint process, including an ethics hotline, that makes it convenient for individuals to report incidents of sexual harassment, retaliation and other misconduct.
- Tailoring harassment training to the organization and audience. Training should reflect the daily experiences and unique characteristics of the workforce, workplace and business or industry.
- Training supervisors and managers on their responsibilities to identify, report, stop and prevent harassment. Managers’ training should cover how to identify potential risk factors and discuss what actions they can take that may reduce or eliminate the risk of harassment.
Vermont is following California, New York City, New York State and other states and municipalities in strengthening its workplace sexual harassment laws. As organizations in the Green Mountain State prepare to comply with the new law, it’s an opportune time for organizations everywhere to review and refresh their anti-harassment programs and initiatives, including compliance training programs, policies, internal reporting processes and communications to employees, partners, contractors, vendors and others. These are all important steps in confronting the pervasive problem of workplace harassment and cultivating a respectful, positive culture.