Yes, no, maybe. Avoid sexual harassment and Fair Housing violations


In our legal system a person is considered innocent and it’s up to the complaining party to prove guilt. Right? This is not true in Sexual Harassment complaints and lawsuits.

If a sexual harassment complaint or lawsuit is filed against you, you are considered guilty and must prove your innocence. Read on to determine if you’re guilty already.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal and/or physical conduct of a sexual nature to constitute sexaul harassment when it is:

  • Used as a term or condition of employment
  • Used as a basis for employment decisions
  • Unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance and/or
  • Creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) now considers Sexual Harassment part of the protected class of Sex under the Federal Fair Housing Act. This means that every full-time, part-time, and temporary member of your team must know, understand and fully comply with the guidelines of the law. Regular review of these guidelines in training classes and staff meetings that include practical discussions and role-plays will greatly enhance a firm’s compliance with these laws.

Harassment victims can be the actual recipients of the harassing behavior, their significant other/s, affected co-workers, residents, guests, and visitors.

Sexual harassers can be supervisors or someone with authority, co-workers, and non-employees. At a property, a non-employee is typically identified as a resident, guest, visitor, and/or vendor.

The two basic categories of Sexual Harassment are Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment.

Quid Pro Quo = This for that

This involves a manager or supervisor as the person abusing the power:

  • Employment decisions or expectations are based on this employee’s willingness to grant or deny sexual favors.
  • Must be “unwelcome,” although a victim could give consent or act like it’s welcome yet consider it unwelcome.
  • Strict liability on the part of the employer to monitor its supervisors;
  • The harassing supervisor is held personally, legally liable as well.

Examples of Quid Pro Quo include a supervisor or manager who desires a sexual relationship with a worker and offers/grants that worker higher wages, better work hours, additional benefits, or a more desirable performance evaluation rating, all or any of which is not afforded to other workers. Plus that worker or other workers feel that this behavior is unwelcome.

Another example may be a manager or maintenance supervisor who desires a sexual relationship with a resident or guest and offers/grants that resident or guest speedier service, better repairs, apartment upgrades, or rental discounts, all or any of which are not afforded to other residents or workers. Plus that resident or guest or other residents or guests feel that this behavior is unwelcome.

Hostile environment = Harassment due to gender or sexuality
  • Verbal or nonverbal behavior that focuses on the sexuality of another person or is because of the other person’s gender (same/opposite).
  • Behavior or communication can be subtle or obvious.
  • Must be “unwelcome,” although a victim could give consent and act like it’s welcome yet consider it unwelcome.
  • Totality of the circumstances will be considered in the ruling and/or final judgment.
  • If the Employer or Manager knew or should have known and did not act on it, the Employer or Manager is liable.

Examples of Hostile Environment include name-calling, slurs, jokes, negative stereotyping, threatening, intimidating, hostility, gestures, innuendos, tone of voice, and written or graphic material that defames or shows hostility or aversion toward another person because of their sex, that is displayed on walls, bulletin boards, or elsewhere on the premises or circulated in the workplace.

This also includes employees and non-employees who use your business equipment like the computer, fax machine, or copier. It is advisable that all users sign a waiver stating that they will not use the equipment for pornographic materials.

For instance, if a resident or prospect walks past a computer screen and sees pornographic material on display they may be able to sue you, your staff, your firm, your owner, and your management company under the protected class of sex under the Federal Fair Housing laws for allowing a hostile sexual environment.

In the property management business, employees work in an environment where their customers actually live. These residents and their guests are not clothed in business attire 24/7. Residents and guests are dressed in casual attire to swim, work out, do laundry, collect mail, dispose of trash, etc. All of their body parts may not be fully covered all of the time.

It is highly recommended that all workers and vendors avert their gaze, do not stare, refrain from making inappropriate comments or gestures and leave the area, premises or an apartment if a resident or guest is scantily clad.

How can you determine if your or your co-workers’ behaviors are sexually harassing? One method is to ask yourself if this behavior or comment would be appropriate if you said or did it to someone you highly respect like your grandmother or community leader or even your own child. This is often referred to as “The Grandma Rule.”

What are the penalties for non-compliance with the EEOC and/or HUD rulings? A person is considered either part of the problem or part of the solution.

The totality of the circumstances and offenses will be considered in each case ruling. Fair Housing fines can start at $10,500 for the first offense with an unlimited cap on punitive damages on behalf of the victim/s and offenses. An Administrative Law Judge in an EEOC or a Fair Housing lawsuit can even award jail sentences and/or community service hours. Typically companies will discipline an offending employee with suspension and/or employment termination. So you have to ask yourself if a potentially sexual comment or joke or cartoon is really worth the hassle, tainting of your reputation, fines and even job termination.

What should you do if you are sexually harassed or are enduring a hostile environment? It is advisable that you 1. Ask the harasser to stop; 2. Follow up your verbal request in writing; 3. Give a copy of your written statement to your supervisor; 4. Speak with your owner or company president to get your complaint handled; 5. If all else fails, speak with your local EEOC office personnel.

Did you know that the EEOC protects your right as an employee to file a complaint and/or participate in an investigation with full protection from retaliation by your employer and/or the harasser/s? As an employee you have the right and responsibility to work in an environment free of sexual harassment.

  • Ask your firm for a copy of your company’s sexual harassment policy and procedures, and then follow them.
  • Attend and participate in regularly scheduled training sessions and staff meetings that outline your rights and responsibilities under the EEOC and Fair Housing laws.
  • Contact CallSource (800-500-4433) to enroll in an upcoming one-hour web and teleconference training class on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment for Supervisors, Prevention of Sexual Harassment for Employees, Fair Housing Basics, Advanced Fair Housing and Fair Housing for Maintenance in English or Spanish.
  • Keep all documents that prove your compliance with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Fair Housing laws like: written policies, employee handbooks, training materials, staff meeting minutes and rosters, and EEOC posters.

Now, are you part of the problem or part of the solution? Guilty or Innocent?

Author: Cynthiann King is President of Cynthiann King Education Services, national speaker, policy manual writer, degreed educator and dynamic seminar presenter serving the property management industry for over 18 years. Cynthiann is not an attorney. All sexual harassment and legal matters should be referred to your supervisor and legal counsel.