Six Questions Every Ag Employer Should Ask Themselves About Sexual Harassment (Part 1)

With a new bombshell dropping nearly every day implicating celebrities, politicians and business leaders in sexual harassment, employers may be starting to break a sweat.

Agriculture isn’t exempt. In fact, female farmworkers are especially vulnerable with 60 percent reporting having experienced sexual harassment. And ag employers are equally liable. In 2015, $17 million in damages was paid to five farmworkers in Florida who had accused their supervisors of rape and harassment.

Before we put our heads in the sand, because we don’t need one more thing to worry about in addition to the weather, the labor shortage, the market, water and pests, let’s consider that a proactive approach to sexual harassment can pay dividends in improving employee retention and satisfaction.

“I wish my daughter could work in cherries this summer to save money for college, but I’ve worked in those fields, I know what it’s like. And there’s no way I’m sending my 16 year old daughter out there.”

Female Farmworker in The Dalles, Oregon

Here are some important questions to ask:

  1. Could this be happening at our company?

  2. Wouldn’t we have heard about it if it were happening?

  3. Could we be liable?

  4. How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

  5. How can we prevent it?

  6. How can we address it when it happens?

We’ll dive into these questions in the next couple posts.

1. Could this be happening at our company?

Yes. Statistically speaking, it’s quite likely that sexual harassment has occurred at your company. According to a recent poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 48% of women in the US say they have experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work. And 60 percent of female farmworkers reported experiencing sexual harassment.

2. Wouldn’t we have heard about it if it were happening?

It’s unlikely that managers would have heard about sexual harassment occurring at their company. 71 percent of women in one survey said they did not report the sexual harassment. There are many reasons for this, but it boils down to each woman running her own cost-benefit analysis. What do I stand to lose if I report this? What would I gain? The weight of what an undocumented farmworker stands to lose by reporting harassment is likely to outweigh her perception of the chances that her complaint would be taken seriously and resolved.

3. Could we be liable?

We won’t attempt to interpret the law, but here's an excerpt from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website: 

Employer Liability for Harassment

The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages. If the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

When investigating allegations of harassment, the EEOC looks at the entire record: including the nature of the conduct, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination of whether harassment is severe or pervasive enough to be illegal is made on a case-by-case basis.

Stay tuned for more resources to help answer these questions:

  • How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

  • How can we prevent it?

  • How can we address it when it happens?