Fair Housing and Sexual Harassment – Staff and Resident Relationships

HUD settled with a California apartment and property management firm on a sexual harassment complaint involving maintenance worker

What needs to be done to avoid fair housing sexual harassment complaints involving staff, residents and vendors from the Fair Housing Institute.

By The Fair Housing Institute

What is sexual harassment in fair housing? Sexual harassment in fair housing focuses on staff or vendor interactions with residents as well as interaction between residents.

Just as your staff is trained about  sexual harassment between fellow employees, there needs to be training that focuses on how the staff interacts with residents – with clear policies that define what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. This article will discuss different scenarios that could affect staff/resident relationships and what needs to be done to avoid fair housing sexual harassment complaints.

Courteous or Too Friendly?

Of course, we always want our staff members to be courteous and respectful, but when can that cross the line? Consider, for example, an employee who pays a resident a compliment, perhaps on an article of clothing. This may seem totally acceptable. But what if this staff member continues on with compliments, or is noted to pay certain residents more attention than others?

When we talk about sexual harassment, it may be difficult to make distinctions about what’s legal and illegal, because there are broader definitions that include the culture or environment.

The legal definition of sexual harassment is asking for sexual favors and doing it in a manner that suggests there will be a benefit to the person: they’ll get their rent reduced, they’ll get better services, and so on. Does this mean we are free to say anything as long as we aren’t getting something in return?

A casual conversation or compliment dropped one time is probably not going to end in a sexual harassment complaint. However, the concern comes in when there is an environment that makes it OK to say things on an increasing basis, or that it becomes too personal.

We need to remember that what one person thinks is OK may not be acceptable for another. The point being that to avoid a possible fair housing/sexual harassment complaint, there needs to be clear policies that ensure no lines are crossed and things are always kept on a professional level.

Personal Relationships

What is your company policy regarding staff and residents dating? This can lead to all sorts of problems. If your company does not have a strict “no-dating” policy, you will need at the very least policies and procedures that outline clear action that will be taken if a complaint is ever made.

Some companies have a general policy that personal relationships need to be reported so that the company is aware of them. If this is the case, there needs to be an exact reporting protocol that is well-known, and should include specifically to whom these types of relationships need to be disclosed.

What if the relationship is between two residents? What responsibility does management have then? Under the Fair Housing Act, you are required to investigate if one resident makes a claim that another resident is sexually harassing them. Suppose the investigation finds the claim to be true; in that case, the offending party needs to be notified that the behavior should stop immediately and that sexual harassment in housing is not permitted. It will be viewed as a violation of the lease and they may lose their residence.

Vendors and Residents – Who Is Responsible?

While vendors are not technically employees, you are still responsible if a claim is made. Perhaps a resident tells you that the pes- control technician made them feel uncomfortable or made an inappropriate joke. What is your responsibility in this situation?

Ignoring this kind of complaint can lead to litigation and a fair housing complaint. The best way to mitigate this liability is to have a fair housing clause in your contract or agreement explaining that the vendor and its staff cannot discriminate against anybody and list all the reasons, including sexual harassment. And if you don’t have that kind of fair housing clause, you can always write a letter to each vendor that includes the same information.

This sets clear guidelines that have to be followed. If a sexual harassment claim is made, your policies can be referenced and action can be taken accordingly, with everything being documented as per fair housing best practices.

A Sexual Harassment Claim Has Been Filed – Now What?

Despite your best efforts, a claim still may be made. Here are five recommendations on how to properly handle a sexual harassment claim:

  1. Contact person(s)
    All employees and residents should be informed of the name of the person to contact with any allegations of harassment, sexual or otherwise. There should be a second person also named, in case the allegation is against the first contact person.
  2. Conduct an investigation
    If a resident complaint is made that the statements or actions of another are offensive (even if the term “sexual harassment” is not used), regardless of the expected outcome, management should immediately conduct an investigation of the matter.
  3. Document interviews
    An investigation includes interviewing all relevant parties, documenting the interviews, and responding to the complainant in writing.
  4. Take appropriate action
    If the investigation shows that the conduct was offensive or a violation of company policy, appropriate action should be taken with the employee, resident, or vendor, and documented. The definition of “appropriate action” will depend upon the seriousness of the conduct and who is involved (employee, resident, or vendor).
  5. Document the file
    If the investigation does not substantiate the allegations of the complainant, the file should be documented with a statement by the supervisor of why it appears the allegations were without merit, and an appropriate letter should be sent to the person who made the complaint.

Best Practices to Find Balance and Avoid a Sexual Harassment Claim

As stated before, determining a clear line that is not to be crossed can be difficult. We want our staff members to be friendly with our residents, but we need them to be keenly aware of what is considered unacceptable behavior as well as how to respond if a claim is made.

One of the best ways to teach balance is through role-playing. Have your staff brainstorm scenarios that they think are relevant and then practice how to properly handle them. Doing this also shows people’s differing tolerance levels. What one staff member may feel is acceptable, another may feel meets the definition of sexual harassment. This will open up the opportunity to have some great dialogue and drill down on specifics.

Along with regular training and practice sessions, it is a best practice that each employee annually sign a statement that sexual harassment is illegal and the employee understands that sexual harassment is a violation of company policy that will likely result in termination.

The takeaway is this: Fair housing training, policies, and documentation are all an absolute must to avoid a sexual harassment claim; or in the event one is made despite best efforts, the ability to handle it properly and legally.

About the author:

What needs to be done to avoid fair housing sexual harassment complaints involving staff, residents and vendors from the Fair Housing Institute

In 2005, The Fair Housing Institute was founded as a company with one goal: to provide educational and entertaining fair housing compliance training at an affordable price, all at the click of a button.

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