Sexual harassment is a pervasive issue that has been receiving a lot of deserved attention lately because of the #MeToo movement. Harassment in all its forms is unacceptable in the workplace, but given the widespread media coverage and sweeping legal changes, it is important for HR departments to be vigilant on this important topic. Employers can implement certain “common sense” measures to help create a harassment-free environment. Let’s take a closer look at the key steps that can be taken.
1) Craft the Proper Policy
Employers must have policies that allow no room for misinterpretation. The policies should be clear and concise and outlined in contracts or handbooks that are given to your employees. These policies should also be placed in areas where they can be seen by many employees. You should mention in your policy what constitutes sexual harassment, that you have zero tolerance for harassment, and that employees who report sexual harassment will not face retaliation.
2) Handle Office Romances Properly
Office romances are nearly impossible to avoid. While you cannot stop them, as an employer you should communicate your expectations for workplace relationships. You should have a policy that, at a minimum, discourages relationships between superiors and subordinates and requires employees to disclose when they’ve begun an office romance. Both parties should sign paperwork indicating that the relationship is consensual and you should keep this information in the employees’ personnel files. This documentation may be helpful if there is a future harassment claim.
3) Don’t Allow Inappropriate Jokes
Today’s inappropriate “joke” is tomorrow’s sexual harassment lawsuit. Everyone’s sense of humor is different and it is important to control inappropriate jokes in the workplace.
4) Keep Parties Tame
Office parties that get out of hand are one of the most common environments where sexual harassment takes place. While a workplace party or gathering is a great way to boost morale, keeping your parties tame is in your best interest. Consider providing a limited number of drink tickets instead of an unlimited open bar; limiting the party to a few hours instead of one that goes late into the night; or avoiding themes that could lead to inappropriate workplace conduct. You should also have a meeting or circulate a communication to employees before these events to go over your expectation that employees engage in “suitable for work” conduct, even in the more relaxed atmosphere of an office party.
5) Have Training Opportunities on a Regular Basis
Regular trainings or workshops can help your employees stay up to date on your expectations and changes in the law. These regular training opportunities are also a convenient way to disseminate updated policies. Consider utilizing different training techniques to drive the message home. Your employees will be more engaged with the topic if you are not simply showing the same training video over and over again.
6) Respond to Complaints Quickly
When a sexual harassment complaint is made, time is of the essence. It is imperative for employers to show that they take these complaints seriously. A slow response to a sexual harassment complaint can significantly increase your exposure to a legal claim. On the other hand, having a well-defined policy providing for a timely and thorough investigation, and investigating and responding quickly, can strengthen your defense if a claim is brought later. Your employees will also have confidence that you mean business when it comes to addressing sexual harassment.
7) Retaliation Cannot be Tolerated
You should let employees know that any sort of interference with a sexual harassment complaint, or interference with an investigation, is not only against the law but will directly lead to disciplinary action (likely termination of employment). You should remind your supervisors and other decision makers at every opportunity that retaliation is strictly prohibited.