Oh Harvard…not you too!

We’ve post—a LOT—about workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, but it seems this type of behavior starts earlier.

Is locker room banter the new normal?

I hope not.

Accustomed to being viewed as a bastion of intellectual enlightenment and civility, Harvard University now finds itself in the spotlight for canceling the rest of its men’s soccer season after university officials discovered what they described as a widespread practice of the team’s players rating the school’s freshmen female players in sexually explicit objectifying terms. Harvard was No. 1 in the Ivy League standings with a 4-0-1 conference record.

Just Locker Room Talk?

Last night, The New York Times and CNN reported that the university began investigating the men’s team after The Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper, reported last week that a player created a nine-page document in 2012 scoring the women’s team’s players based on their looks (including photos) and paragraphs-long evaluations of the freshman recruits of the Harvard women’s team in vulgar terms based on their physical appearance.

Male players refer to this document as a “scouting report.”

After the Crimson published the report, it published the women’s team response by the six members of the Harvard women’s soccer recruiting class from 2012.

What did the women have to say? They decried the pervasiveness and normalization of “locker room banter.”

“More than anything, we are frustrated that this is a reality that all women have faced in the past and will continue to face throughout their lives…We are appalled that female athletes who are told to feel empowered and proud of their abilities are so regularly reduced to a physical appearance. We are distraught that mothers having daughters almost a half century after getting equal rights have to worry about men’s entitlement to bodies that aren’t theirs. We are concerned for the future, because we know that the only way we can truly move past this culture is for the very men who perpetrate it to stop it in its tracks.”

The women’s team response also refused to stoop to a negative level. They “went high”:

“We know as teammates that we rise to the occasion, that we are stronger together, and that we will not tolerate anything less than respect for women that we care for more than ourselves.”

“We have seen the ‘scouting report’ in its entirety,” they wrote. “We know the fullest extent of its contents: the descriptions of our bodies, the numbers we were each assigned, and the comparison to each other and recruits in classes before us. This document attempts to pit us against one another, as if the judgment of a few men is sufficient to determine our worth.”

What Does This Have To Do With Employment?

Well….

As you probably know, sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace is illegal! It violates both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal anti-discrimination statute, and most states’ human rights laws.

As both my partner Richard Cohen and I have written multiple times (here, here, and here), harassment based on sex, if it is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, offensive, or abusive may constitute sexual harassment.

As defined by the EEOC, such “harassment” may constitute offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats of assaults, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

Seems like the conduct of the Harvard men’s team—if done in the workplace—would fall in that ballpark (or soccer field).

Harvard held these players accountable for their actions. It didn’t excuse this “scouting report” with a slap on the wrist and then allowed the men to finish their season. No. It issued devastating consequences to these male athletes who were seeding first in the Ivy League and looking for a winning season.

The Takeaway for Employers:

As I wrote about here, employers must take corrective action when they learn about sexual harassment or sex discrimination.

  1. Have a clear, no-tolerance sexual harassment policy set forth in your employee manuals and handbooks; ensure it is disseminated throughout your company, and understood;
  2. Have a specific procedure for investigating any claims of sexual harassment and follow it, documenting the process along the way;
  3. Encourage reporting of sexual harassment and convey that your company would not retaliate in any way against any person who reported sexual harassment; and
  4. Document extensively any employee’s claim of sexual harassment or sex discrimination as well as the steps you take to stop and prevent it.

Preventative and corrective action will minimize your risk of liability if the EEOC comes a’knocking on your door. And, as the Harvard women’s soccer team stated “ultimately we are all members of the same team. We are human beings and we should be treated with dignity. We want your help in combatting this. We need your help in preventing this. We cannot change the past, but we are asking you to help us now and in the future.”