Employers and employees must be responsible and vigilant to prevent sexual assaults at work.

By Marty McIntyre

Guest Columnist

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center has determined that workplace sexual assault is the focus of this year’s awareness efforts.

When thinking about sexual violence in the workplace, we tend to think about sexual harassment. In 2006 the Equal Employment Opportunity Council received 12,025 charges of sexual harassment, and many more were likely reported to private companies.
The majority of sexual harassment is verbal-sexual jokes, teasing, inappropriate conversations, sexual questions, etc. However, some of the behaviors of sexual harassment involve unwanted touching and sexual assault.

From 1993-1999, 36,500 employees at U.S. businesses experienced rapes and sexual assaults while working or on duty. Clearly, this can have a devastating impact on the victim. The offender may be someone employed by that workplace such as a co-worker or supervisor, or may be someone from outside the place of employment. Following a sexual assault at the workplace, victims may have difficulty feeling safe at work and may find it a challenge to meet their work obligations. Women who have been sexually assaulted at work report decreased work functioning for up to 8 months following the attack and 50 percent of rape victims lose their jobs or are forced to quit in the aftermath of the crime.

Sexual violence at work also has a profound impact on the workplace. It can decrease the sense of safety for other workers, increase healthcare costs for employers, and negatively impact on the productivity of the workforce. It can create absenteeism and job turnover, and tarnish the reputation of a company. It can also result in a civil suit against the employer if the employer was shown to be negligent in preventing the sexual assault from occurring.

The most effective response to workplace violence is to stop it before it occurs. Companies can do this by having clearly stated and appropriately enforced regulations about sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Management can model respectful behavior and address harassing or violent behavior when they see it. Employees and employers can intervene when they see a situation developing which could lead to sexual harassment or violence. And companies can respond effectively and seriously when a situation of sexual harassment, sexual assault or stalking is brought to their attention.

Additionally, employers can provide support for victims of sexual violence or stalking. All employers in Maine are required to allow “reasonable and necessary” leave from work, with or without pay, for an employee who has been a victim of violence, assault, sexual assault, stalking, or any other behavior that would support a protection order. The violence does not have to have occurred at the workplace. This leave pertains to the victim or a parent, spouse or child of a victim and may be used to prepare for and attend court proceedings, receive related medical treatment or obtain services around the sexual assault, assault or stalking.

The employer does not have to grant leave if it would create an undue hardship, if the leave is not requested within a reasonable time frame or if the requested leave is “impractical, unreasonable or unnecessary given the facts then made known to the employer.” Employers should make sure that their employees know about this law and understand how to request leave if needed.

Additionally, employers can help their employees access resources to help them deal with the impact of the crime. Most employers have Employee Assistance Programs which are helpful to victims who would like to access counseling services. Employers can work with the victim to figure out how to help that person feel safer in the workplace and address any additional security measures needed for the safety of the victim and other employees.

Employers can also have information available about the services available at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center. Those services are focused on helping people affected by sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking to deal with the aftermath of the crime and its impact on the victim and their family. Those services are free and support services are available 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-871-7741.

Sexual assault is devastating any time it occurs. When it occurs at the workplace, employers have an opportunity to participate in the healing of the victim by being respectful, offering assistance and resources, and helping the survivor to regain a sense of safety at work. This will not only provide support to the victim but will create a safer, healthier workplace for everyone.

Marty McIntyre is executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Auburn. E-mail [email protected]


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