Sexual harassment: Is your farm at risk?

The short answer is “yes,” but here’s how you can reduce your risks with a harassment policy that helps prevent unacceptable behaviours and their consequences

On the outside, everything seems wholesome and almost shiny. We run our family farms with respect and good will, focused on productivity and efficiency.

In fact, as an industry, we’re so good at it, more farms are hiring non-family employees, and there’s increased gender and cultural diversity throughout the agricultural industry.

That has got to be a good thing.

Then I saw a crack. Last year a farmer in Manitoba mentioned to me that their large farm had been caught up in a sexual harassment complaint.

Although he had been able to resolve the situation in-house by using a mix of compassion and discipline, this farmer was suddenly very aware that their farm was at risk from the behaviour of their employees. And what he learned was that in order to mitigate this risk, they needed to show due diligence, and they needed to clearly explain what is acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable, which is how they came to write a sexual harassment policy for their farm.

What? Sexual harassment on a farm in Canada?

The more I dug into it, the more it looked like a can of worms, wriggling with ugly words and slimy lawsuits.

In 2015, a high-profile case against a farm in south Florida captured headlines and highlighted the vulnerability of illegal migrant workers. I read on my laptop that five migrant worker women were awarded a judgment of almost US$17.5 million. Newspapers reported that three men, including two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms, were accused of rape, groping, and kissing, and they were also accused of threatening the women, saying they’d be fired if they refused to have sex with supervisors.

My first temptation was to stop reading. I thought, this must only be happening with illegal migrant workers in the southern U.S., right?

Dennis Cooper, a professor of dairy science and a former extension dairy specialist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, says sexual harassment on farms is more common than we would like to imagine. “I believe this a big problem on American farms,” he says. “The stories I have heard, the lack of awareness of sexual harassment on the part of farmers and employees, and the isolation and remoteness of many farm workplaces… ”

In fact, Cooper thinks this issue is so important, he devotes several class periods to the subject in his agriculture human resources management course at UW-River Falls, including one class that is conducted by a campus colleague who is expert on the subject and stays current on relevant case law.

“Sexual harassment occurs as commonly or more commonly on farms that employ women compared to the typical non-farm business,” Cooper says.

Cooper believes it’s a bigger problem in agriculture because it’s often swept under the rug: “I am quite concerned about it, mainly from the horror stories I have heard from former female students about their experiences as workers and managers on farms.”

Cooper says that few farm employees are even aware that they’re entitled by law to protection from sexual harassment, and that their employer is obligated to provide that protection. “Many farm employers are equally unaware of these legal obligations and, by their failure to comply, put their employees at significant risk of sexual harassment and their businesses at enormous legal and financial risk,” says Cooper.

Farmers and employees also need to understand that harassment happens to all genders, ages, sexual orientations, and ethnic and religious backgrounds, and that it can occur between all employees — workers, owners, managers, supervisors, or even to those selling inputs or services to the farm.

The victim and/or harasser can be a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser do not need to be of different genders.

In general, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. However, sexual harassment can also include offensive remarks about a person’s gender, such as about women in general.

Although simple teasing and minor, isolated incidents are not unlawful, it quickly becomes unlawful when it creates a hostile or offensive work environment.

Cooper encourages business owners and managers to learn what their organizational liability is for sexual harassment, and how to demonstrate reasonable care to prevent it. Although there are shared legal elements in the approaches adopted by most states, provinces and countries, every jurisdiction’s laws and definitions are likely to be unique to some degree, so any business’s harassment policy must reflect the laws applicable to its location.

The core idea to internalize is that your most important first step is to develop and institute a sound policy on sexual harassment, says Cooper.

He encourages his students to seek out and download sexual harassment policies online, and then adapt the content to their own situation. In class, he has used the policy of his own university.

“Combine these examples with overviews, principles and procedures from experts to come up with a template,” Cooper recommends. “Then I encourage students and producers to use these resources to write their own policies in accordance with applicable laws.”

Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council’s online toolkit has one such template. (Although you have to buy the whole $99 toolkit, it covers everything from recruitment to setting wages to the legal obligations of employing someone.)

Jennifer Wright, senior human resources adviser with CAHRC, says it’s best practice for all employers to have a policy that clearly addresses sexual harassment, and the policy should be posted in a place that’s easily accessible and visible to all employees.

This policy should include stated commitments by the employer to provide a safe and respectful workplace to all employees, along with the right that all employees have to a safe, positive, respectful work environment, free of harassment and discrimination.

The policy should clearly state that the employer has zero tolerance for any harassment or discriminatory behaviour.

Wright says the policy should also define what constitutes harassment and discriminatory behaviour, and it should include an outline to follow if an employee feels they’ve been harassed or discriminated against on the job, as well as links to the Human Rights code.

It’s important to explain that any employee who commits such harassing or discriminatory behaviours will be subjected to specific management actions, says Wright.

Plus the policy should state that the employer has a duty to accommodate the complainant, and describe who’s responsible for that process.

This link will take you to an agricultural example, although please note that this is not legal advice. Your policy will have to take into account your jurisdiction and the nature of your operations. But this example on porkgateway.org gives an idea of idea of how a policy might be structured.

To give you an idea of how simple it can be, the policy goes something like this:

It is the goal of (Farm Name) to provide a work environment free of tensions involving matters which do not relate to the (Farm Name)’s operation. The (Farm Name) strongly disapproves of any form of harassment including but not limited to ethnic, religious or sexual harassment involving any of its employees. Actions or remarks involving ethnic or religious animosity, or conduct of a sexual nature will not be tolerated. Employees, without fear of reprisal, have the responsibility to bring any form of harassment to management’s attention. Complaints concerning harassment will be investigated by (Farm Name) promptly in a confidential manner and the results will be reviewed with the persons involved. Disciplinary action, up to and including discharge, will be taken against any employee engaging in any form of harassment. Employees, without fear of reprisal, have the responsibility to bring any form of harassment to management’s attention.

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