With all the talk about how terrible sexual harassment is – not to mention, illegal – it’s one of those problems in the workplace that has never really gone away, even if it has become less overt. Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexually-nuanced verbal or physical boundary violations. When sexual harassment affects an employee’s work performance or creates a hostile work environment, it becomes a legal issue for both employees and employers.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace is prevention, which means that HR and management need to play a big role in discouraging sexual harassment, and to take quick action if such harassment occurs.
How should HR and management go about preventing sexual harassment?
Here are a few recommendations for how a company’s policies and procedures can discourage sexual harassment.
1. Establish and Effectively Communicate a Sexual Harassment Policy
Employers should make clear, both in writing and in staff meetings, that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.
2. Create a Standard Procedure for Following Up on Complaints
If an employee approaches HR with a complaint of sexual harassment, the company should have a standard procedure of how to follow up. Ignoring it is not an option (in fact, it is illegal). Following up can include investigating the complaint, talking to the parties involved, etc. – the point is to have a standard procedure in place so that HR won’t be clueless when such a complaint is made.
3. Investigate the Complaint
Probably the most unpleasant part of the job, whoever is investigating the complaint should speak with both the employee who made the complaint, and the employee who allegedly harassed.
4. Take Action
Depending on what the investigation yields, immediate action should be taken (which will reinforce your zero-tolerance policy to employees). If the investigation shows that sexual harassment did, in fact, occur, the guilty employee should be punished. The punishment can be commensurate with the degree of harassment; if it was unintentional, a citation might suffice. If it repetitive and harmful, termination is required. If the complaint was determined not to qualify as sexual harassment, this might be an emotionally difficult situation for the person who lodged the complaint and HR must handle it very carefully, perhaps with the assistance of a psychologist or counselor.
While it is important to be fair when investigating claims of sexual harassment, companies must remember that they can be held liable for sexual harassment that occurs in their workplace, and liability can include paying compensation. To avoid these situations, it is imperative to implement the above four steps in order to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace. Not only will you protect your company, but you will also create a safe and comfortable environment for your employees.