Employers have a responsibility, among other things, to ensure their workplace is free from sexual harassment. Not only is this a legal obligation, but it is also just a good business practice. Allowing sexual harassment, or harassment of any type, to go unchecked in the workplace will lead to low morale, decreased productivity, and lawsuits.
Understanding the Definition of Sexual Harassment
The EEOC provides excellent guidance on sexual harassment, including this explanation of exactly what constitutes sexual harassment.
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
The harasser can be anyone, including the victim’s supervisor, manager, or coworker. Employers may also be held liable for harassment by a vendor or customer, depending on the situation. One issue that is often overlooked is the fact that same-sex harassment does occur in the workplace and it is equally illegal. Be sure not to inadvertently ignore this type of harassment.
Ways to Prevent Sexual Harassment in Your Workplace
Some employers may not realize that there are a number of strategies for reducing the occurrences of sexual harassment in the workplace. Even if you cannot employ all of these strategies, the more proactive you are in taking as many of these steps as you can, the more you can reduce the risk and limit your liability.
- Establish and implement a comprehensive sexual harassment policy.
If your employee handbook does not already have a clear sexual harassment policy, be sure to add one. If you have one, make sure it includes a clear definition of sexual harassment and sets out the procedure for reporting sexual harassment if it occurs. Your policy should make clear that your company has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and that harassers will be disciplined or terminated. It is also important to inform employees that all complaints of sexual harassment will be fully investigated. The final piece is an assurance that employees who complain about sexual harassment will be not retaliated against by anyone. Remember: no matter how great the policy is, it is worthless if it is not enforced.
- Provide training to employees regarding sexual harassment.
Employers should do their best to provide training sessions on sexual harassment for employees at least annually. That training needs to include an explanation of what constitutes sexual harassment and the fact that employees have a legal right to work in an environment free of harassment. The training should also explain the complaint process and encourage all employees to use it, ensuring they will be free from retaliation if they do. Supervisors and managers need a separate training session that also includes how they are expected to handle complaints of sexual harassment they receive.
- Monitor the workplace to ensure the training and policies are being followed.
Putting the appropriate policies in place and providing the proper training is not enough. Management needs to establish a routine of getting out among the workforce periodically to see how things are going. Assessing how the work environment is perceived by employees and asking for their input is a great way to monitor the atmosphere and determine whether there are issues as early as possible. Monitoring the workplace also allows you to observe whether there are obvious issues that have not been reported, such as offensive posters or chatter among employees. The key is to keep the lines of communication open.
- Ensure that all complaints of sexual harassment are taken seriously.
Similarly, having policies and procedures in place for reporting, investigating and handling complaints of sexual harassment is not enough if complaints are not handled promptly and appropriately. When an employee complains about sexual harassment, employers need to act immediately to investigate. In situations where the complaint turns out to be valid, an employer’s response must be immediate and effective.