You Can't Afford Not to Update Your Workplace Sexual Harassment Guidelines and Procedures

The sun rises behind a fork in the road.

Organizations can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace by providing instructive training and swiftly enforcing fair and clear policies.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has once again soared to the forefront of national conciousness. 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 cases involve women accusing men; however, there have also been notable cases of men accusing men and women accusing women. These incidents show that sexual harassment in the workplace is likely more prevalent than previously believed and that it affects both men and women. Thus, it's important that business owners install a culture backed by written policies and training to prevent sexual harassment and protect themselves and their business when it does, in fact, occur.

Understanding Sexual Harassment at Work

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (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. This applies to public and private employers with at least 15 employees and covers not just employees, but also clients and customers.

What Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Can Cost Your Business

It's crucial to thoroughly understand the economic impact that sexual harassment can have on your business and why this makes revamped guidelines, training and communication practices so critical. According to CNBC, Fox has recently spent $90 million to settle sexual harassment cases. This is in addition to the monies previously spent on settlements for key individuals who were ultimately fired after years of harassing behavior. NBC's "Today" show and "CBS This Morning" have $508 million and $177 million, respectively, in ad money at risk as corporations consider pulling their ads for fear of damaging their reputations by association. All these organizations had standard sexual harassment prevention policies and training in place for years.

Sony recently spent over $10 million in its efforts to replace an actor in an upcoming movie. Netflix and Amazon have both spent millions shifting personnel and production in order to remove sexual predators from the shows they produce. Amazon also is incurring costs as it overhauls its streaming division. Although these entities were not accused of ignoring sexual harassment, they're incurring costs as a result of engaging with individuals or other organizations that employed those who have been accused. These firms have taken swift, decisive action to ensure that the repercussions do not repel their user base and customers or destroy their reputations.

There are major costs for recruitment and retention, too. According to the Harvard Business Review, approximately 80 percent of women who have been sexually harassed leave their jobs in under two years. Replacing an employee means additional recruiting, onboarding and training fees, among other expenses. The loss of knowledge that occurs when long-term employees leave abruptly is significant as well. These costs add up and can seriously impact an organization's bottom line. Furthermore, it's often not only those who were directly targeted who leave. Many women and men who observe that such behavior entails no repercussions at an organization decide to leave it.

Prevention Guidelines and Communication

According to the EEOC, 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. Those guidelines must clearly state what the law is, what it disallows and what constitutes sexual harassment. They 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 clearly 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 Review (HBR), 98 percent of employers have sexual harassment policies in place and 70 percent of employers provide sexual harassment training, yet sexual harassment clearly 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.

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.

HBR also notes that "using terms such as 'predatory' instead of 'perpetrator' and 'target' instead of victim' can shape how organizational members interpret this policy." This type of language serves to 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 and the actions that will be taken if this basic principle, backed by federal law, is not honored. That 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. Swift handling of complaints have another benefit. When employees observe that their organization handles complaints quickly, they see first-hand 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 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 within the ranks of their organization.

Use Outside Expertise

If there is no policy or it is weak, business owners could engage an outside organization to help craft or revamp their sexual harassment policy. A training organization, for example, with specific expertise on these issues can provide web-based and 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 the prevention will permeate throughout the organization.