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Sexual Harassment by the CEO

In the workplace, all employees have an obligation to treat each other with respect and not to discriminate against each other or harass each other. This is especially true for a chief executive officer (CEO). This person has the ultimate responsibility for managing everyone in the company and ensuring a positive work environment. It is up to the CEO to ensure that the people who work there are productive and feel comfortable in the office.

A CEO has significant power over the employees and can make someone’s experience at the office difficult and uncomfortable. Employees should know that they have a right to work in a comfortable environment, and even the CEO of a company is not above the law. They can be held liable for sexual harassment and in those instances can face very real consequences for their actions.

No employee deserves to be mistreated by anyone at work, especially the CEO. They can feel isolated, as they believe there is no one they can turn to for help. When facing this situation, an employee can turn to a qualified sexual harassment lawyer who will stand up to a major company and its CEO to help put an end to any unacceptable behavior.

What is Sexual Harassment by a CEO?

A CEO is the highest-ranking executive of a company and is usually the chair of the board of directors. Their responsibilities include managing the operations and resources of a company, making major corporate decisions, being the main liaison between the board of directors and corporate operations, and being the public face of the company.

In that role, the board has instilled them with a significant amount of responsibility. Part of that responsibility includes treating their employees properly. When a CEO makes unwanted sexual comments, advances, or contact with one of the employees, that constitutes sexual harassment by a CEO.

The CEO, given their position in the company, has the power to intimidate any of their employees and imply a very real threat that their job could be in jeopardy if the employee does not do as the CEO has requested.

A few examples of sexual harassment by a CEO include:

  • Demanding that an employee perform a sex act for the CEO or lose their job
  • Asking questions that are sexual in nature, such as questions about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation
  • Staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling
  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography, with co-workers
  • Sending suggestive letters, notes, or emails
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace
  • Telling lewd jokes or sharing sexual anecdotes
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person
  • Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity

The gender of the CEO is irrelevant, as is the gender of the person who is the target of the harassment. A male CEO can harass both male and female employees, just as a female CEO can harass male and female employees.

Can a CEO be Fired Because of Sexual Harassment?

Although a CEO is the most powerful person in a company, in certain ways they are also the most vulnerable, especially when it comes to accusations of sexual harassment. If claims are filed against a CEO, the board can vote to remove that person from their position even if the charges have yet to been proven.

In many instances, the CEO’s contract states that any inappropriate behavior is ground for termination of employment. Many boards will take this action because it will minimize a company’s association with bad publicity.

There have been a few well-known CEOs over the years who have been either fired or forced to step down from their positions because of accusations of sexual wrongdoing. The charges did not stick in every case. Some examples include:

  • Harvey Weinstein: CEO of the Weinstein Company, Harvey Weinstein is perhaps one of the most high-profile cases the country has seen. Numerous actors and actresses came forward after a blistering article in The New York Times detailed sexual allegations charges against him. He was fired from his own company. He was later convicted of rape and sexual assault in New York.
  • Travis Kalanick: The CEO of Uber was forced to step down after numerous accusations came out at Uber Technologies, Inc. Kalanick was accused of knowing about the inappropriate behavior but did not act on them.
  • Mark Hurd: Hurd was head of HP in 2010 when an outside contractor accused him of sexual harassment. Hurd was asked to step down, causing a significant drop in the company’s stock price. The claims were eventually found to be untrue, although Hurd was found guilty of lying about his relationship with the accuser and using HP’s resources inappropriately.
  • Roger Ailes: The CEO of the Fox Network was another high-profile case, as several former on-air talents accused him of sexual harassment and retaliation. He was eventually terminated from Fox, a network he helped create, over the allegations. He died several years later, continuing to deny the allegations.

Society’s culture around sexual harassment has changed, and even those who are heads of their own companies are not protected from the consequences of sexually harassing their employees. Those who face this type of behavior need to speak up and report them; otherwise, the behavior could continue.

What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can take place anywhere; however, it is most prevalent in the workspace. Whether that be an office, a construction site, a store, or a movie studio, when one employee makes unwanted sexual advances or comments to another, that is considered sexual harassment. Harassment generally comes in two forms:

  • Hostile work environment: A hostile work environment is a scenario in which the CEO, through their actions, can create a work environment that is difficult for one or a group of employees. They may not be as productive and may find it uncomfortable to come to work every day on a physical and emotional level.
  • Quid pro quo: A quid pro quo situation is when a person makes a sexual request of an employee in exchange for a work perk. In the case of CEO sexual harassment, a CEO can suggest an employee have sexual contact with them for a raise, or more vacation, or even to keep their job.

It is important to note that a CEO can still get into trouble if they are engaged in an intimate relationship with an employee, even if it is consensual. Given the authority a CEO has over an employee, there still may be the underlying belief, even if it has not been expressed, of a quid pro quo relationship. To prevent these problems, some companies forbid their CEOs from engaging in any type of relationship with their employees for that reason.

There have been CEOs who were removed from their position, even though they were not guilty of sexual harassment but were guilty of violating company policy. Some of the more high profile CEOs include:

  • Steve Easterbrook: The CEO of McDonalds had a consensual relationship with one of his employees. Even though it was consensual, he was fired from his position. Easterbrook later apologized to the staff for that relationship, calling it a mistake.
  • Brian Krzanich: The CEO at Intel also had a consensual relationship with an employee that he attempted to hide from the company. The relationship violated company policy, and Krzanich was terminated.
  • Phaneesh Murthy: The CEO of iGate had a consensual relationship with an employee; however, that person later made sexual harassment allegations against him. The company quickly dismissed Murthy soon after the accusations came to light.

Given the authority and responsibility they have over their employees, CEOs must pay extra attention to the way they conduct themselves in front of their employees. They must also be willing to listen and act on any claims of sexual harassment made by an employee. If they fail to act in a reasonable way, they could be held liable later.

What Laws Cover Sexual Harassment by a CEO?

There are multiple laws that address sexual harassment by the CEO in the workplace. There are laws at the state and federal level that prohibit this type of behavior. These laws include the following:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: The law protects employees from sexual harassment at the workplace from all co-workers, including the CEO. This law covers all companies with 15 or more employees.
  • New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD): The law prohibits the mistreatment of a co-worker for a variety of circumstances, including their gender, sexual orientation, religion, and others.
  • Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRC): Prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, using language similar to the New Jersey version of the law.

These laws are there to protect employees from having to deal with unsolicited sexual advances from their CEO. They help to establish a safe and open work environment so that all can work comfortably.

If My CEO is Sexually Harassing Me, to Whom can I Report It?

All companies should have a system in place for reporting claims of sexual harassment. Although in most cases a person would report a problem to their supervisor, in this instance it is impossible to go any higher than the CEO. Given those circumstances, a person should go immediately to their human resources (HR) department to report the problem.

Prior to reporting the incident, the employee should have detailed notes on the incidents that took place. The notes should explain what happened, when it happened, and how the harassment made the person feel. When speaking with HR, the employee should present a reasonable resolution to the situation.

If HR fails to adequately respond to the situation, or if the employee believes that the company or CEO has retaliated against them for lodging a complaint, there are several government agencies they can contact for assistance. They can go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), although many find that state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights within the Office of the Attorney General operate faster than the EEOC.

Once a complaint has been filed with a government agency, they will give the person the approval to move ahead with a lawsuit. Filing a lawsuit will allow an employee the opportunity to recoup any lost wages and may result in changes at the company.

When Should I Hire a Lawyer about My Sexual Harassment Case?

When an employee is dealing with sexual harassment by a CEO, it is a more complicated matter than if one was facing tasteless jokes from a co-worker. Given the identity of the harasser, it immediately raises the seriousness of the issue. As such, it is best to contact a sexual harassment lawyer early in the process.

A lawyer can provide advice as to how to proceed in trying to resolve the problem. They will help determine how to report the claim to HR and will be able to determine the appropriate time to report the incident to an outside agency and which agency is the most appropriate.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. can Confront a CEO Who is Making Work Uncomfortable for You

When a CEO is making unwanted sexual comments or advances toward you, it can be difficult because of the power and influence they hold at the company. You might feel trapped or helpless going against someone as powerful as the CEO. Let the Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. help you face this challenge. No CEO is above the law. If you want a resolution to your situation, call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey, as well is in New York.

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