One Employer Sends a Clear Message on Sexual Harassment

Anti-harassment, -discrimination, and -retaliation policies and procedures are not just for show.

These policies and procedures must be clear, strong, and, most important, followed. And the tone is set at the top.

Leaders that ignore their companies’ own anti-harassment procedures send the message that the company culture tolerates sexual harassment (and other forms).

CEO Karen Lynch of CVS Health is not permitting that kind of culture, and, in fact, terminated a group of executives for failing to take allegations of sexual harassment seriously.

What Happened?

An HR executive and others botched an internal investigation responding to anonymous sexual harassment complaints that a regional store manager inappropriately touched at least two female employees.

By “botched” I mean they did not take the allegations seriously or initiate promptly an investigation.

But when Lynch learned of the allegations, she launched and supervised a thorough, independent investigation of the matter.

Lynch, leading by example, made this statement:

We absolutely do not tolerate behavior or actions that are harassing, hostile, abusive, or discriminatory …After a thorough investigation conducted with an outside independent firm, we quickly terminated the individual and others have since been exited from the company for failing to treat allegations with the seriousness we expect.

Now that is. Bossing. It. Up.

Indeed, the tone is set at the top. Lynch creates expectations here and conveys that reporting and investigating harassment is a top priority for her.

Since then, CVS has taken several decisive actions:

  1. CVS strengthened its internal reporting procedures because of this incident;
  2. CVS established an office of workplace assistance that Lynch herself is overseeing; and
  3. Lynch, apparently understanding the value of transparency, informed senior leaders of the changes and sent out a memo to staff explaining what happened, promised to report the handling of sexual harassment allegations, and informed employees about the changes the company was making in this regard.

Employer Takeaways—Leadership

You’ve heard me say this before: a company’s organizational culture must be one that does not tolerate harassment. Leaders shape the culture.

Leaders must believe authentically that harassment is wrong, not want it in the workplace, must articulate these beliefs, and hold this same expectation of others.

Authentically focusing the climate on anti-harassment measures is a first step. Why?

Remember, we told you most recently here and here that (1) organizations that tolerate offensive behavior typically have far greater problems with sexual harassment and, (2) indeed, scientific studies show that organizational “tolerance” is the single most powerful factor in determining whether sexual harassment will occur.

In fact, studies have shown that strict management norms and a climate that does not tolerate offensive behavior can inhibit harassment, even by those with a propensity toward such conduct.

That’s what CVS Health is doing here.

Employers must hold alleged harassers accountable in a fair and proportionate matter, regardless of rank or rainmaking ability. This includes holding accountable employees who fail to respond to reports of harassment and anyone who retaliates against a person who reports, corroborates, or intervenes to stop harassment.

Again, Lynch is a model student – actions speak louder than words.

In addition, policies, procedures, and training complement transparency and accountability to create a comprehensive, holistic harassment prevention effort.

Remember, that means:

  • Having a clear, no-tolerance sexual harassment policy in the employee handbook that discusses specific misconduct and examples, i.e., no sexual or sexist jokes, puns, innuendo, smacks on the butt, grabbing of any body parts, quid pro quo harassment (and what that means) at work or at an after-hours event;
  • Ensuring anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policies are disseminated (and updated) throughout the company and understood by all employees;
  • Providing a written procedure for reporting and thoroughly investigating claims of unlawful harassment and following that procedure;
  • Following up with the individual who reported the harassment—regardless of the finding—to ensure they feel safe and that they are not being retaliated against; and
  • Taking swift and decisive corrective action to prevent such conduct. That may mean suspending or terminating the perpetrator.
  • Having clear standards for discipline and implementing them.

CVS and Lynch are following this blueprint—hiring independent investigators, firing the execs who dropped the ball on the harassment complaints, supervising CVS’s new workplace system herself, and being transparent with employees. Lynch said:

I want to be crystal clear: this company does not tolerate harassment or hostile, abusive or discriminatory behaviors of any kind from any employee – regardless of position… . We also will not tolerate inaction from leaders who are responsible for escalating concerns or allegations raised by our colleagues.

Now that’s leadership.

This piece originally appeared on Fisher Law, and was published here with permission.

Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy focuses her practice on employment law counseling, serving as a trusted legal advisor to business owners, in-house counsel, and Human Resources, and works to prevent organizational problems (not just react to them). Amy defends employers against employee claims and lawsuits involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage and hour violations, and COVID-19 claims. She counsels and provides training to organizations (as well as her firm, FisherBroyles) about preventing harassment, discrimination, and retaliation; gender transition plans and policies; employee management techniques; providing reasonable accommodations for disability compliance (under the ADA) and recognizing requests for accommodations; worker classification; and inclusivity and diversity initiatives. Amy also drafts, negotiates, and analyzes employment and separation agreements, restrictive covenants, and employee handbooks. In her spare time, Amy is a litigator, author of the FisherBroyles’ employment law blog, mother of three, wife of one, and avid Peloton rider.

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