Harassment in Agriculture: Does Your Farm Set a Good Example?

There is strength in numbers, and certainly that fact has rarely been clearer than with the #MeToo movement. For decades (maybe centuries), women have been afraid to come forward with their accounts of uncomfortable or compromising situations, knowing they might be the one punished rather than the perpetrator. But now, women realize society is listening and they can finally speak publicly without fear of retribution.

People are finally beginning to realize how common sexual harassment has been in the past, and companies are taking important steps to protect employees against future abuse.

But is that step toward empowerment happening on farms? Some of the most vulnerable members of society are female immigrants who work in livestock operations. Perhaps they don’t have a good grasp of the English language. Perhaps they are afraid of losing their job if they come forward.

Are you creating an environment in which women – and all employees – feel safe?

Take a Critical Look at Your Operation
“Agricultural employers who are not proactive about guarding against sexual harassment in the workplace could face crippling lawsuits from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),” warns David Cook, with the law firm LeClairRyan. Cook represents agricultural businesses throughout the Northeast, working from the firm’s office in Rochester, New York.

He says the EEOC has filed a number of sexual harassment suits against agricultural firms in the past, and has declared its plans to take active steps to protect workers in agricultural industries.

“If a complaint is factually grounded, swift corrective action must be taken,” points out Cook.“If the conduct has risen to the level of criminal conduct, law enforcement involvement may be necessary. Agricultural employers must be aware of and responsive to the potential for sexual harassment among their employees. By being proactive, employers can protect both their employees and themselves.”

Protect the Vulnerable
No abuse or harassment – whether of animals or people – can be tolerated in agriculture industries. As a responsible employer, do all you can to make sure neither is happening in your farm business.

Cook says foreign national farmworkers are staying in the U.S. for longer periods, and many women are joining their husbands here. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, for a number of reasons, he explains. They often don't speak English, which makes it difficult for them to report harassment. In addition, their working conditions are isolated and they’re likely less familiar with legal protections available to them.

It is critically important for farm operations to formulate and adopt a sexual harassment policy, and to make sure all workers are award with that policy. Cook says a good sexual harassment policy will clearly state what kind of conduct is forbidden and will provide an accessible, confidential reporting system.

Written standard operating procedures are a good start, but your efforts can’t stop there. Make sure employees feel comfortable talking to someone within the operation, and assure them they won’t be punished for coming forward.