Harassment at work can take many forms

Harassment at work can take many forms

By: Kevin Smith
Originally published by the Pasadena Star-News on February 15, 2017

Businesses are under increasing scrutiny these days, whether it’s financial scrutiny, monitoring of conflict-of-interest issues or sexual harassment.

And while companies hope to remain in line with established workplace policies and procedures, situations still arise. When that happens, they typically call in a third-party attorney to investigate and see how much validity there is to the allegation of wrongdoing.

These kinds of issues are typically brought to light by an employee who feels they’ve been mistreated in some way, or in other cases by the company itself, which is seeking to be as transparent as possible for the sake of both the employee and the business.

Needless to say, businesses are looking to protect themselves from potential liability in the event that an employee wants to file a lawsuit.

So who do companies turn to when a situation like this arises? Some call Ann Fromholz.

“That’s one of the things I do,” said Fromholz, owner of The Fromholz Firm in Pasadena. “I’ve been an employment lawyer for more than 22 years and workplace investigation is one of my areas of practice. I’ve performed hundreds of workplace investigations.”

Fromholz is methodical when she’s called in to investigate a claim, whether it’s sexual harassment, fear of retaliation for reporting misconduct or any number of other things can make the workplace a toxic environment.

“Companies are required by law to conduct a workplace investigation when they are put on notice,” she said.

“That’s why they hire me. If there is a lawsuit they need an independent and impartial investigation.”

In the case of alleged unwanted sexual advances, for example, Fromholz will check out emails, phone calls and texts that may have been exchanged between the two parties, as well as video surveillance that might place someone at a certain location at a certain time.

She’ll also interview coworkers at the business who may have witnessed incidents where someone was sexually coerced or abused in some way. Then she’ll interview the company’s management, and finally, the two parties who are involved.

“My job is to be a fact finder,” she said. “I am not part of the decision involving what happens to the employee.

That could range from training on what sexual harassment is, to counseling — and in aggressive cases people have been terminated. But I’m not part of that decision.”

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) reported in 2008 that as more women have entered the workforce their vulnerability to harassment has also increased. The association’s study of 500 respondents from 92 companies revealed that 54 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment in theworkplace. Digging deeper, 27 percent of the respondents said they experienced harassment by a colleague while 17 percent were harassed by their superior.

And lest you assume that sexual harassment happens only to women, consider this: Seventy-nine percent of the victims in AWARE’s study were women, but 21 percent were men.

NOLO, a Berkeley-based publisher of do-it-yourself legal books and software, offers two simple pieces of advice to help businesses protect against incidents of sexual harassment —monitor your workplace and take all complaints seriously.

Simple but sound advice.