Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. Is Your Policy Clear and Effective?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has once again soared to the forefront of national consciousness. Although the entertainment industry was ground zero for this initial renewed scrutiny, high-profile individuals in politics, the media and the technology sector have all had serious sexual harassment allegations leveled at them.

The overwhelming majority of these incidents show that sexual harassment in the workplace is likely more prevalent than previously believed and that it affects all genders. Thus, it's important that business owners instill a culture backed by written policies and training to prevent sexual harassment and protect their employees and their business if it does, in fact, occur.

Understanding sexual harassment at work

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission1 (EEOC), sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." An activity that "explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment" is prohibited, notes the EEOC.2 This applies to public and private employers with at least 15 employees and covers not just employees, but also clients and customers.

Prevention guidelines and communication

According to the EEOC,2 prevention is the best option to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. The first line of prevention is the existence of a policy with explicit sexual harassment guidelines. They must clearly state what the law is, what it disallows and what constitutes sexual harassment. The guidelines must also clearly delineate the internal process to follow for filing complaints and how the organization will fairly investigate the allegations, as well as the range of consequences for harassing behavior.

These policies must be fully incorporated into the employee handbook. Ideally, organizations should distribute new or updated policies to employees whenever these are published, with key changes highlighted in a separate one- or two-page summary for which receipt must be acknowledged in written or electronic format.

This ensures that employees can focus on and understand key provisions and conveys that the organization takes this issue seriously. To show further commitment, senior managers should also periodically restate policy components in departmental meetings.

The importance of wording

According to Harvard Business Review3 (HBR), 98 percent of employers have sexual harassment policies in place and 70 percent provide sexual harassment training, yet sexual harassment persists. One reason provided is that in work cultures that are highly masculine, some men use the subordination of women as a way to prove their masculinity or relate to other men. This behavior reinforces the lower status of women. In such environments, inappropriate behavior is downplayed or even ignored, despite the existence of policies to the contrary.

  98% of employers have sexual harassment policies in place and 70% provide sexual harassment training, yet sexual harassment persists.

Two other reasons, according to HBR, are the bystander effect and fear of retaliation. In the bystander effect, responsibility is spread to multiple people who have observed an offense and no one takes action or accepts full responsibility. With fear of retaliation, the target or an observer is afraid that when they do speak up, they will be retaliated against. This retaliation can be subtle and include being written up for minor infractions, or lack of consideration for opportunities.

Using words in the policies such as "target" instead of "victim," and "predator" instead of "perpetrator" can strengthen the idea that sexual harassment is illegal, not just unwanted, and helps reinforce that your organization is truly serious about preventing this from occurring. Furthermore, using more gender-neutral terms communicates that sexual harassment can happen to any employee. In other words, it should never be painted as strictly a women's issue.

Conduct training

Organizations also need to take the additional step of providing sexual harassment training to all employees, with an emphasis on managers at all levels. This training's focus should be on treating all members of the organization with respect, as well as the actions that will be taken if this basic principle, backed by federal law, is not honored.

Training needs to also include clear examples of what constitutes sexual harassment. Training videos that show actors in real-life, sexual harassment situations and how it impacts the individuals can be much more effective than lectures or reading materials.

Policies and enforcement

To eliminate the bystander effect, employees need to be encouraged to speak up immediately when they are — or notice someone — being put in an uncomfortable situation. The "offending" employee must then be immediately censured or coached when such incidents occur in order to stop the behavior before it spreads.

Remember, harassment isn't an isolated minor incident. Immediately confronting employees for relatively minor infractions can communicate intolerance and help decrease the likelihood that more serious or ongoing sexual harassment will occur.

Handle complaints swiftly and fairly

The actions that organizations take after an incident is reported are crucial to both engendering an inclusive work environment and limiting liability. Thus, a well-considered, effective complaint process facilitates the reporting, follow-up and investigation of such incidents.

When employees observe that their complaints are handled quickly, they see firsthand that the organization is committed to eradicating this issue from their organization. In this case, employees are much more likely to rely on internal organizational mechanisms to resolve the issue and will likely forego litigation. Additionally, in today's rapid-fire digital age, company reputations can rise and fall in the blink of an eye. So it's critical for organizations to make clear statements through action that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.

You don’t have to go it alone

If you’re struggling with how to identify where to improve, consider partnering with an outside organization to help craft or revamp your sexual harassment policy and procedures. A training organization, for example, with specific expertise on these issues can provide web-based video training or customized in-house training to supplement existing policies. If your organization identifies a sexual harassment case that can't be quickly and fairly resolved internally, consider engaging an experienced law firm to assist in the matter. This can further protect your organization from liability.

Clear sexual harassment policies, consistent communication and fair investigation and enforcement of claims can both prevent workplace sexual harassment and protect organizations. The stronger the wording and the swifter the action, the more effectively a culture of prevention will permeate throughout the organization.

ADP® is there when you need us

In today’s business and regulatory climate, you can’t afford to have sexual harassment policies that don’t fully support your employees. Whether you need to update existing policies, train employees or manage compliance with the EEOC, ADP’s expertise can help your organization navigate this complex issue.

1 Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, Discrimination Guidelines: Sexual Harassment, 1964.
2 Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, Facts About Sexual Harassment, 1964.
3 Harvard Business Review, Why We Fail to Report Sexual Harassment, 2016.

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