Sexual harassment claims have been in the news a lot lately. News coverage has implicated powerful people in Hollywood, television news and politics, but, it's also a serious problem in many other industries. If you're a business owner, you've likely been thinking about your own company's sexual harassment policy. And if you haven't been thinking about it, maybe you should.
Whether you're creating or updating your company's sexual harassment policy, there are several problem areas you'll want to pay attention to.
1. Study the language in your sexual harassment policy.
If somehow you don't make it crystal clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, that's not good. Even if you do mean business, if your policy looks weak and the language seems vague and open to interpretation, that may send a confusing message to employees.
For instance, think about including more than a sentence or two stating that sexual harassment isn't welcome in your company. You may want to include a definition of how the company defines sexual harassment. You should certainly make it clear that there will be consequences for anyone who engages in sexual harassment.
“A strong policy will not only protect employees, but will also protect the employer," says Dallas-based attorney Todd Shadle, chair of the employment law section of Godwin Bowman & Martinez PC. "Such a policy should clearly define what constitutes sexual harassment and advise that there is no tolerance for such behavior—from any employee of the company, from the CEO down."
—Jed Marcus, chair of the labor and employment practice group, Bressler, Amery & Ross
Also be realistic when writing your sexual harassment policy. You can't list every scenario imaginable that might be a form of sexual harassment.
“Even the law does not provide a precise definition of sexual harassment, because there is a well-established recognition that whether an interaction constitutes sexual harassment is a fact-specific determination," says Lori Rassas, an employment and labor attorney and human resources consultant in New York City.
“Someone might compliment a coworker's outfit as part of a normal interaction, which would not be problematic," she continues, "while another person might say the same words while looking the person up and down, licking their lips and blocking the person's exit from the room, which would dramatically change the nature of the interaction."
So, while you may not be able to capture every nuance that might be inappropriate, you could write something like, “Some scenarios that this company would consider harassment include," and then offer up some examples of inappropriate behavior. For example, spreading rumors about a colleague's personal life, engaging in frequent or unwanted advances or making inappropriate comments that are sexual in nature.
“In the most basic sense, sexual harassment refers to workplace conduct that a reasonable person would not be expected to tolerate," Rassas says.
Of course, people can disagree about what constitutes as proper and improper workplace conduct. To address that, you can work language into the policy that makes it clear what inappropriate behavior is. And if the behavior continues after one or two warnings, with discretion being left up to management, the offender will be terminated.
2. Confirm support of victims who come forward.
Hopefully your employees will have confidence and faith that your sexual harassment policy is like the law of the land in your workplace.
However, to eliminate any doubt, consider including language that makes it clear that if the victim comes forward to report inappropriate behavior, your company will support them.
That language may help stave off any inappropriate behavior as well. You want a possible harasser—and any enablers—to know that these antics won't be tolerated. If they fear your sexual harassment policy, they may police themselves.
“All employees, up to the highest level of management, must know that anyone who retaliates against anyone who complains about discrimination or harassment, or who assists someone who is the victim of harassment or discrimination, will be disciplined, up to and including discharge," says Jed Marcus, chair of the labor and employment practice at the law firm of Bressler, Amery & Ross.
Shadle agrees, saying that the policy has to make it clear that there will be no form of retaliation for making a complaint.
“The anti-retaliation provision must be unequivocal and contain a threat of discipline for those that violate it," he says.
3. Demonstrate how a sexual harassment claim will work.
Including a description of what will happen if a claim is put forward may help:
- give a victim much more confidence that harassment won't be allowed;
- scare off anyone thinking of harassing a coworker; and
- provide a road map for your company going forward.
Marcus suggests that your company's sexual harassment policy inform employees that they can file complaints through their supervisor or human resources department. This is the standard procedure for many workplace complaints. Having an outlined, easy-to-follow system for employees to report a sexual harassment incident can help diffuse any tensions.
If you do or don't have an HR department you might also want to consider appointing someone as a sexual harassment ombud. That would be one person who, in the event of a claim, would be appointed to investigate the complaint. Whatever you do, you want somewhere and someone who people feel safe reporting their problems to.
“Also, some companies maintain a compliance hotline where employees could, if they choose, report harassment or discrimination to a third-party who then is responsible for forwarding the complaint to the company's general counsel," Marcus says.
In order to help ensure fairness, “investigations of high-level officials should not be conducted by anyone employed by the company," Marcus says. "Instead, the company should retain an independent investigator unrelated to it."
4. Provide training to ensure employees understand the policy.
Worried that your policy isn't clear enough, or that you have people in your workforce who need more than being told once that sexual harassment will not be put up with or tolerated? You may want to consider offering training, Rassas suggests.
“It is up to all employees to know what harassing conduct is, refrain from engaging in it and [hold] others to the same standard," she says.
5. Communicate broadly.
Once you do have your policy nailed down, send a company-wide memo. You can also make sure the policy is mentioned in the employee newsletter if you have one, or call attention to it at staff meetings.
Ultimately, you want to create awareness for the policy. If employees don't know that your business has a sexual harassment policy, essentially, Marcus says, “the policy is worthless."
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