Sexual harassment is a serious issue in today’s workplaces. According to a recent poll, nearly 40 percent of women report being sexually harassed at work, and other research reveals that the number of men experiencing harassment on the job is on the rise as well. Although sexual harassment is detrimental to workers mentally, physically and financially, employers also face significant costs related to harassment. Not only do employers potentially face legal costs associated with harassment claims, but a company culture that fails to address harassment can affect productivity and lead to increased absenteeism and turnover.
For that reason, all companies, regardless of size, need to take steps to develop strict policies prohibiting harassment and a process for handling sexual harassment claims.
Develop a Policy
The first step toward a harassment-free workplace is to create a clear anti-harassment policy that all employees must adhere to. The policy should define sexual harassment and outline a specific process for making complaints and claims and have clear anti-retaliation provisions. In other words, your employees need to know exactly what is and is not allowed, and what to do if they believe that a co-worker has crossed the line. Because many people do not report harassment because they fear retaliation (such as losing opportunities for promotion or even their jobs it’s especially important to include provisions prohibiting such actions.
Your company’s sexual harassment policy should also state that all claims of sexual harassment will be investigated, and that harassers will be punished. Outline the consequences of sexual harassment in your policy, so employees know exactly what will happen should they be found guilty of sexual harassment.
Foster an Environment of Respect
The best method of managing sexual harassment in the workplace is to prevent it from happening at all. Because sexual harassment is usually about power, not sex, creating a respectful climate reduces the likelihood of people using their position or influence to intimidate or control others. Some of the ways you can create a climate of respect include:
- Prohibiting employees from using profanity.
- Prohibiting employees from using terms of endearment (“honey,” sweetheart,” “dear”) and instead calling each other by name.
- Prohibiting employees from posting material, including photos or cartoons, that are sexually explicit or feature gender, racial, or ethnic stereotypes.
- Prohibiting employees from telling inappropriate jokes or having conversations related to to sex or potentially discriminatory topics.
In short, encouraging a professional environment reduces the likelihood of harassment. Employees can still be friendly and congenial, but in a work-appropriate manner.
Provide Training on Harassment
In addition to writing and communicating a policy on sexual harassment, training employees in how to identify and respond to harassment can also prevent it from occurring. Employees should be trained in the specifics of harassment, including what behaviors constitute harassment and what they might look like. Teach employees about the behaviors that could be construed as harassment, and how to respond. Training videos are often useful in the regard, as they provide a clear visual representation of unacceptable behavior that might be unclear from a written policy.
Managers and other leadership should also receive additional training in prevention of sexual harassment and how to respond. Managers must understand the policy and definitions of harassment and learn to recognize the signs of a problem. Not all employees, especially men, are willing to come forward about being harassed, so it’s management’s responsibility to be vigilant and ready to act if they spot a problem. Management should also know the proper procedures for responding to harassment and the steps to take to discipline harassers.
Be Vigilant for Signs of Harassment
Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace means being aware of what’s happening and watching for signs of a problem so you can take action. Take time to visit with your employees regularly and take note of the environment and how people are relating to each other. If you spot potentially offensive material (such as posters or photos) ask employees to remove them.
And keep an eye on employee behavior; if you notice a downturn in productivity, increased absenteeism or a change in demeanor, investigate. These issues don’t automatically mean that someone is being sexually harassed, but staying alert could uncover other issues that need to be addressed. If nothing else, being present among your team and proactively addressing problems helps foster an environment of respect and helps you be a better leader.
Document All Claims of Harassment
If an employee comes to you with a claim of harassment, it’s important to take that claim seriously. Don’t jump to conclusions or automatically assume guilt, but treat the accusation seriously and be prepared to act. This includes documenting all conversations and actions you take regarding the claim. If the case does end up going to court, your detailed notes and records can provide legal protection against any claims that you did not respond appropriately.
Among the forms of documentation you need to collect include:
- Notes on the initial complaint, including the date and time of the conversation, the persons present and the information shared in that meeting.
- Any formal written complaints provided by the accuser.
- Notes related to conversations with the accused, with date, time, and witnesses.
- Copies of evidence presented by both sides.
- Written documentation of any actions you have taken in relation to the accusation.
When an employee makes a claim of sexual harassment, remind him or her to keep personal documentation of the incidents, as well.
Conduct Full investigations of Harassment Claims
As an employer, it is your responsibility to investigate all harassment claims, even if you think they are unfounded or lack evidence. Failing to investigate can lead you in legal hot water, as you can be held liable for the sexual harassment if it continues after the initial claim is made because you failed to act.
Therefore, you must investigate – and document – all claims of harassment, which includes interviewing the accuser, the accused and possibly any witnesses and collecting evidence (messages, emails, photos, etc.). If you do not have trained staff to handle such investigations, consider hiring legal counsel or an independent investigator to conduct the inquiry. Whoever handles the investigation, it needs to be launched immediately (the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission recommends beginning the investigation within 48 hours) and the accuser should be kept apprised of the developments and outcome.
In addition, ask the employee making the claim how you can make the workplace more comfortable while the investigation is ongoing. Although it’s usually not a good idea to reassign a harassed employee before the investigation is complete, as it can lead to claims of retaliation for making the claim, you may be able to move an employee to a different location or allow a more flexible working arrangement for the short-term. Referring the employee to the Employee Assistance Program is also a compassionate move, as it can help him or her cope with the harassment.
Act Quickly and Follow Policy in Handling Sexual Harassment
Finally, if you determine that sexual harassment has occurred, act quickly and in accordance with your policy. Not all sexual harassment offenses justify termination, and the disciplinary action should align with the seriousness of the offense. A single inappropriate remark might warrant little more than a formal reprimand, for instance, while severe, ongoing harassment justifies termination. Again, all discipline should be in accordance with company policy, and delivered fairly and in a timely manner.
Read More: How to Handle Sexual Harassment in the Office
- Equal Rights Advocates: Sexual Harassment at Work
- Frank Crum: 4 Ways to Manage Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- ABC News: How to Deal With Sexual Harassment
- Nolo: Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- America's SBDC: Managing Sexual Harassment in Today’s Workplace
- The Conversation: Many Men are Sexually Harassed in the Workplace – So Why Aren’t They Speaking Out?
- Institute for Women's Policy Research: Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer on topics including lifestyle, education, and business. She is the author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), and her work has appeared in Lewiston Auburn Magazine, Young Money, USA Today and a variety of online outlets. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.