The statistics around sexual harassment in the workplace are startling. Over 80% of women say they have been sexually harassed at work, and over 70% fear retaliation for reporting such harassment. Workplaces often create a culture – either by design or inadvertently – that bolsters inappropriate behavior and silences victims.
Employers have a responsibility to provide a workplace that is welcoming and safe. Toxic work environments have struck even the largest companies. In a high-profile response, Google fired 48 employees for sexual misconduct and implemented tougher policies.
To best protect employees, sexual harassment prevention should be a priority in the workplace. Small- to mid-sized companies face the most risk for a lawsuit. This is due to a lack of clear policies, procedures, and discipline measures.
By putting the right practices into place, your company can minimize the risk of harassment occurring.
How to Prioritize Sexual Harassment Prevention
A hostile work environment includes both physical and verbal conduct that is of a sexual nature. These can include jokes, emails, texts, comments, and inappropriate touching. The unwelcomed interaction interferes with the employee’s ability to do their job.
The damage caused by sexual harassment can be far-reaching. The health and wellness of the victimized employee can be compromised. Your workplace morale can deplete, and your company’s brand and reputation affected.
No company can afford to sit back and be complacent about sexual harassment. You should take steps to learn about harassment, prevent it, and eliminate it.
Establish a Formal Policy
Your company needs to start with a written policy about sexual harassment. It needs to be explicit in what conduct is not acceptable. It also needs to be clear about the reporting process and how victims can file complaints.
You should be familiar with and adhere to all federal and state laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed gender discrimination, and this is enforced by the Equal Opportunity Commission. You need to comply with all laws and ensure their incorporation into your policy.
Your policy should emphasize that victims will not be punished or face any retaliation for speaking up. Victims need to be comfortable coming forward so they are not further victimized.
The person receiving such reports or complaints should be properly trained. They need to know the appropriate next course of action.
Once established, you need to distribute your policy to all employees. It should be easily accessible going forward, and all new hires should receive and review a copy of the policy.
Commitment to Workplace Culture
Employees want to be in a work environment that is inclusive. By fostering respect in the workplace, employees will feel compelled to do the right thing and treat each other with dignity.
By prioritizing these values, your company will build a culture and a team that emulates them. A toxic work environment can impact your company’s ability to retain and hire top talent.
Ultimately, your atmosphere can drive behavior. It can either enable predators or create an environment where such behavior is categorially not tolerated. If your workplace culture is the latter, sexual harassment is less likely to occur.
Expectations for Employees
Your work does not end with creating and distributing a sexual harassment policy. You need to provide regular reminders to employees of workplace expectations. This should come from senior-level management so that employees know that it has the attention from the top.
Clear Communication Around Acceptable Conduct
All employees should be aware of the standards of behavior. Sometimes a policy can only go into so much detail. Employees need to be educated on sexual harassment that can go beyond the obvious.
Sometimes, employees may not even be aware that they are crossing the lines. Managers should know to take action if they see inappropriate behavior occurring. This can be even absent a formal complaint from an employee.
Look for patterns of behavior. Sexual harassment is often more than a single incident. It comes from individuals who have problematic behavior and issues, potentially extending outside of the workplace.
Your response needs to be more than a slap on the wrist. The communication and policy should clearly outline the consequences for unacceptable behavior. Whether it is disciplinary action or termination, employees should be aware of the consequences of sexual harassment.
Training on Sexual Harassment Prevention
Having a sexual harassment training program is an important step in educating employees. The program can include real-life scenarios and examples. You can also provide resources available to sexual harassment victims.
Both managers and non-managers can benefit from such training. Additional training for managers can include sexual harassment investigation techniques.
Regular training in a variety of formats will ingrain the seriousness of sexual harassment in employees. It will help them learn how to spot it, report it, and prevent it.
Sexual harassment prevention is not a “one-time task.” You must have a plan in place not only for ongoing education but also for assessment. Review your policy for compliance with new laws and current trends about the best ways to prevent sexual harassment at work.
The #MeToo movement is an example where many workplaces had to take a hard look at their environments. Far too many had sat back for too long and not taken an active role in sexual harassment prevention. Your policy should always evolve and improve over time.
Staying current means that the cultural definition of “acceptable” has changed. What may have been acceptable in the past is not acceptable now. New platforms and methods of communication open new doors for sexual harassment.
Making continued updates to your policy will keep your company in step with changes in your environment. Look beyond only your company’s education and discouragement of sexual harassment. You also need to evaluate how your company responds to complaints.
A Robust Reporting Process
Employees should know the process for filing a sexual harassment complaint. Response from a manager or HR representative needs to be swift. All reports should be taken seriously, and investigations launched.
Document all steps of the investigation. This includes the nature of the incident(s), dates, location, and names of anyone who may have witnessed the harassment. The investigation should be professional and without bias.
If the allegation is against a senior employee, it might need an investigation from a third-party. If any accusations include criminal activity, notify the police.
Many victims fear that reporting sexual harassment will impact their careers. You must ensure that you don’t incentivize silence in any way. HR teams should encourage complaints so that victims aren’t afraid to speak up.
One way to uncover if victims are staying silent is through anonymous employee surveys. Your HR team can ask employees how they feel about workplace culture. It may reveal that sexual harassment is occurring and going unreported.
During the investigation, you should take steps to protect the victim. You also need to provide protection for the accused until the investigation is completed.
Failure to Mitigate Sexual Harassment Risk
Companies make many mistakes when it comes to sexual harassment. They may think that a lack of complaints means that harassment isn’t occurring. They may fail to conduct a prompt or thorough investigation of complaints.
Your risk can go all the way back to your hiring process. Companies should team with human resources for appropriate applicant screening. Hiring the wrong person can be inviting problems in the future.
Risks can go a step further with consensual relationships that can evolve into sexual harassment. Employers need to consider how to tackle consensual relationships rather than ignore them. This could include employees disclosing such a relationship, limiting such relationships, or prohibiting them altogether.
Your company could face substantial costs as a result of sexual harassment. You may have a higher turnover rate and lower productivity in a toxic work culture. Your employees may be less motivated or have their work disrupted.
If a sexual harassment claim ends up in a lawsuit, the costs are even higher. Formal charges will include legal fees and a potential payout to a victim. Failure to have policies and follow-through leads to even greater risks for companies.
Companies that buy Employment Practices Liability Insurance (“ELPI”) need to understand their limits. Companies should ask their insurers what types of claims are covered. They should also understand what litigation could look like under the policy.
Protecting Your Employees and Your Workplace
Your sexual harassment prevention needs to be more than checking a box. Educating your employees is only half of the equation. The other half is your message that sexual harassment is serious, intolerable, and goes against company values.