Sexual Harassment: An HR expert, sexual harassment lawyer, Tulane professor weigh in

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - With all of the talk of sexual harassment and headlines involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and local chef and restaurateur John Besh, experts on the issue talked about what constitutes sexual harassment, the victims' right to speak up and the need for solid employer anti-sexual harassment policies.

"It's just against all elements of fairness to me," said New Orleans attorney Victor Farrugia.

Farrugia has been handling sexual harassment cases for 25 years in the New Orleans area and other parts of the country. He said he understands the fear some victims have about speaking up.

"I think that is a realistic fear and I think that's a realistic way a lot of the employment situations work," said Farrugia.

Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor also weighed in on the issue.

"It's difficult because if you report, you're not sure that you will be believed. A lot of times we don't believe people who report unless there are dozens and dozens of them doing it collectively together. Even if you are believed and something is done about it, it's very hard to then continue with that employer or in that industry if you have a reputation of having complained about it," she said.

But federal law bars employers from retaliating against those who complain about being sexually harassed.

"Title 7 has a protection against retaliation, so if you complain about sexual harassment in the company and then they fire you, then you have a retaliation claim and sometimes those are easier to prove than the actual sexual harassment claim," Farrugia stated.

Amy Bakay owns HR NOLA, a human resources consulting firm. She provides training locally and around the country and said companies should not leave appropriate behavior to chance.

"Prevention is really the best medicine there is and to be pro-active and to get out front of this when the reality is it could all be prevented," Bakay said.

She talked of what might constitute an act of sexual harassment.

"A few examples might be, to the average person, could be seen in the form of jokes, or human, sexual innuendos, or perhaps there's a photo that someone might see or view as inappropriate, as sexual in nature," said Bakay.

"It's about a workplace where you're not judged on your merit and you're made to deal with coercion around coercive sex, of hostility in the workplace," said Tetlow.

"The EEOC defines harassment in two main categories, one of those being quid pro quo, Latin for this for that. It basically means I demand a sexual favor from you and in return you're going to get a work-related benefit such as a promotion," said Bakay.

Farrugua said if a company has a policy for reporting sexual harassment, a victim should follow it.

"I always tell my clients when they come in with, well what should I do? I say, well, a good job is better than a good lawsuit, so try to work it out with your employer and make the proper complaints through the Human Resources Department, you know, make that complain,t and if it doesn't get resolved then do something about it," said Farrugia.

He added that such lawsuits are not always easy to win. Plaintiffs must prove their allegations.

"These are not like slam-dunk cases, but the law is pretty good," said Farrugia.

He said anyone hoping to bring a federal case of sexual harassment should bring their complaint to the EEOC, which investigates allegations.

"They'll come out with a determination letter, either they found enough evidence of sexual harassment for a violation of the statute, or they didn't find enough evidence for a violation of the statute," said Farrugia.

He said if the behavior is unwanted, the person on the receiving end should make it very clear and ask the offender to stop. And in terms of sexual harassment policies, Bakay said companies should realize that not all sexual harassment occurs on the jobs. Sometimes it happens during work-related functions off site. And she said it is important to have several ways complaints can be made just in case a worker is not comfortable dealing with the HR department at their place of employment.

"That is a symptom that we hear very often. It's important to outline multiple venues within your company. Employees obviously want to be heard and they fear retaliation," said Bakay.

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.