Owning an agricultural business doesn’t make you immune to a sexual-harassment suit. You have the same risk as any other business — maybe even more.

Businesses that take proactive steps can use what are called “good-faith” defenses, explains Mark Tatum, partner at the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City, Mo. These “good-faith” defenses include a written policy on sexual harassment, procedures to file a complaint, and a system in place to investigate and address a complaint. Businesses that do not have these systems will look like they are trying to ignore the issue. And, in a court of law, that can cost you.

Here are three reasons why you need to develop a sexual-harassment policy for your business.

1. No industry is immune.

Sexual harassment suits can and do happen in every industry and in every size of business. The harassment can be male-to-female, female-to-male and even female-to-female or male-to-male.

So, don’t think that because you are involved in agriculture or only have a few female employees that you don’t have a risk. A false sense of security can lead to big judgments if a  lawsuit is ever filed.

In the late 1990s, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission started seeking out sexual-harassment cases related to farm workers. Since then, the EEOC has filed dozens of lawsuits against agricultural and food-related companies, explains Don Dressler, risk-management and benefits consultant in Irvine, Calif.

Among recent cases: Rivera Vineyards in California’s Coachella Valley paid a $1.05 million settlement in 2005; Tanimura and Antle, a Salinas, Calif., lettuce processor/distributor paid a $1.85 million settlement in 1999; and Harris Farms, a large cattle feedlot and farming operation., got handed a $994,000 jury verdict in January 2005. Similar cases in other parts of the country include a Florida vegetable packer who paid a $205,000 settlement in 2004 and a Washington fruit grower who paid a $150,000 settlement in 2005.

“The younger generation will not tolerate harassment. They will use the laws to take action,” says Dressler. In fact, statistics show that if you have 15 or more employees, the odds are one in five that a sexual-harassment suit will be filed against your business within the next 10 years.

Given the litigious nature of today’s society, addressing and preventing sexual harassment has become another cost of doing business.

2. Lost productivity.

Sexual harassment can impact a victim’s ability to do the job. Productivity and performance may  decline, or the person may decide to stop showing up for work altogether.

Sexual harassment also can affect co-workers. When other employees are aware of the problem, but don’t see management addressing it, they may decide they don’t want to work in that type of environment. And any subsequent lawsuit filed against you could make it more difficult to recruit and retain good employees in your area.

3. High legal cost.

According to Don Tyler, personnel-management specialist in Clarks Hill, Ind., the average judgment awarded in sexual-harassment suits as of three years ago was $162,000, plus attorneys’ fees. 

Merely defending this type of lawsuit can cost $100,000, says Tatum. And if you lose, you get to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees — another $100,000. So, paying the average judgment plus attorneys’ fees can easily amount to $362,000 or more.

If an employee brings a problem to your attention, don’t ignore it. And don’t assume the employee will never take it to court. “Anytime an employee brings a claim forward, and you do nothing, the judgment against your business goes up,” says Tyler.

In addition, if you have not taken any of the proactive steps — a written policy on sexual harassment or a system to investigate and address complaints — your business has very little defense, explains Tatum. And if you live in a state that does not have a cap on damage awards, such as Missouri, a savvy attorney will file suit under a Missouri statute rather than a federal statute. Then, if you lose in court, the damages could literally ruin your business.

Sexual harassment is definitely one area where an ounce of prevention really does pay. View the "Stop Sexual Harassment" article on dairyherd.com for five ways to minimize your risk of a sexual-harassment suit.