The allegations regarding outrageous sexual harassment actions in recent headlines have opened discussions about how many people have been affected by inappropriate conduct themselves. We’ve seen more and more women come forward to begin to share their personal experiences regarding harassment. What can you as an employer do to reinforce your corporate commitment to prohibiting harassment, and what can you do to be prepared if someone comes forward to raise a complaint of harassment? Below are some simple suggestions which may help you as you consider these scenarios.
Understand what constitutes “sexual harassment”. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature if submission to or rejection of this conduct 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. Conduct is judged according to the reasonable person standard, not just how the conduct was perceived by the complaining person but how an ordinary, reasonable person would view such conduct. Many factors come into play in evaluating harassment, some of which include the employment relationship between the parties (co-worker or supervisor), the frequency of the conduct (one time or routinely) and the type and severity of the conduct (email, text, verbal or physical).
Ensure that you as an employer have both a policy against harassment and a meaningful process to accept and investigate complaints. Responsible employers have a clear policy against harassment based on any protected characteristic including sex, race, religion, age, and national origin among other characteristics. Once you have a policy in place, make the process of lodging a complaint clear and simple. Reinforce your commitment by promptly and thoroughly investigating complaints in a fair and reasonable manner- ask for help if you need to have a third-party investigator. Intervene and take action as appropriate based on the results of your findings.
Reinforce your commitment to a harassment-free workplace by regular, personal training sessions for both your manager/executives and your regular staff members. Some states such as California mandate regular training. Education is an important tool to inform your employees what is acceptable conduct and what behaviors are unacceptable and subject to discipline. An interactive training session allows your employees to ask questions, hear examples that relate to your specific work environment and see that each of their coworkers is hearing the same message about the employer and their fellow employees’ expectations for work place interactions.
Be consistent, fair and open minded when complaints are lodged. Trust is built when employees see that their concerns are respected.
The Labor and Employment attorneys of Odin, Feldman & Pittleman can help you prevent and respond to claims of sexual harassment through policy review, training seminars, individualized counseling for investigations, and defense of claims filed with government agencies or in state and federal courts.