Sexual harassment tends to worsen as time goes on if it is not dealt with, according to the University of Minnesota. In the U.S., employers are liable for sexual harassment committed by an employee, and employers are required to take steps to prevent harassment at work. In addition to helping protect the organization if a harassment claim is filed, it makes good business sense to prevent poor employee morale, low productivity and possible lawsuits that can occur when sexual harassment is tolerated in an organization.
Sexual harassment includes any kind of unwelcome sexual conduct or sexual advances on the job. Although sexual harassment is technically gender neutral, the New Hampshire Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence reports that most cases are filed by women against male perpetrators. Comments about a person’s body, sexual jokes, staring at someone’s body, touching or brushing up against someone and making obscene gestures can all be sexual harassment. A hostile work environment can include these activities as well as provocative pictures or cartoons in the work area.
Develop a Policy
A clear statement of intent from the leaders of the organization is one of the first steps in a sexual harassment prevention program. The statement should make it clear that sexual harassment is against company policy and will not be tolerated. Senior employees and managers should also “walk the talk.” Even if a company has a policy forbidding sexual harassment, if a manager looks the other way or makes excuses, employees will know the policy has no validity and may testify to that if a case comes to court.
Training is another critical component of a sexual harassment policy. All employees should be trained to recognize sexual harassment, how to deal with a harasser and how to report harassment. The policy should also explain what steps will be taken when a sexual harassment claim is made by an employee. If the organization is unionized, the employer should include union representatives as well as employees and managers in developing the policy. Education and communication about the issue of sexual harassment should take place on a regular basis.
When a Charge is Made
If a charge of sexual harassment is made, the employer should follow the policy. Investigate immediately and; maintain neutrality until all the facts are known. If an employee is found to have been committing sexual harassment, apply appropriate discipline. In many cases this will mean immediate termination of the offender. Provide support and protection for the employee who has brought the complaint. If the organization has an employee assistance program it may be helpful to refer the victim for professional support.
Monitor the workplace closely to determine if sexual harassment is occurring; many employees will not report harassment for a variety of reasons. Ensure that there is no retaliation against an employee who makes a sexual harassment claim. A quick and effective response to a harassment claim can decrease the potential that a court will find an employer liable for allowing harassment to occur. Although none of these steps in and of themselves will prevent a claim, an employer who has a policy in place and follows it consistently is in a much better position to defend against a liability claim.
- University of Minnesota: Prevention of Sexual Harassment
- New Hampshire Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence: Sexual Harassment
- The Armstrong Law Firm: Employers’ Responsibility to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Small Employers on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors
- Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images