Sexual harassment claims can pop up overnight. The best thing is to be prepared for that eventuality and initiate action against it when it happens.
EEOC Defines Sexual Harassment
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment thus: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: 1) Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment. 2) Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals. 3) Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”
Incidents of sexual harassment abound; some are reported, others go unreported. Nearly 12,000 charges of sexual harassment were filed and acted upon last year alone, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Sexual Harassment Is Gender-neutral
There is common misconception, an illusion, if you will, that only women can be sexually harassed by men. Women can just as easily harass men. The report mentioned above says more than 16 percent of the sexual harassment claims were made by males.
“Many would say that sexual harassment is nothing but an issue of power—that is, one person exercising power over another and using sex as the tool of power,” attorney Gary Oberstein told Industry Week’s Michael Verespej.
Sexual harassment is gender-neutral and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1974. State laws also kick in when it happens. Sexual harassment claims tarnish the image of your business, demoralize the workforce, and put you through the wringer of litigation. The claims can even sink your business.
Harassment Suits Can Strike Anytime
For small businesses, more often than not, the disastrous consequences of sexual harassment claims are the result of the firms not responding and acting upon when the claims are made. In essence, if you think the claims are going to wash over in due course, you are mistaken. In fact, the claims stink, fester, and kill off the business.
Sexual harassment claims can come to boil at any time. This was evident during the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court.
Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. Hill worked for Thomas years earlier when he was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
She charged that Thomas made lewd advances, and harassed her with discussions on laundry list of sexual acts and pornographic films after she spurned his invitations to date him.
Preventing Workplace Harassment
1. Have a Clear Policy
Preventing sexual harassment at workplace is easy if you have a policy. The policy emphasizes the definition of sexual harassment, firm’s zero-tolerance approach towards it, and drills into everyone’s mind the consequences. The policy lays down channels for reporting and methodology of investigating complaints.
Writing in Entrepreneur, Steven C. Bahls and Jane Easter Bahls state the vulnerability of small businesses: “Small businesses are especially vulnerable because the informal office atmosphere may seem to allow sexual banter and innuendos, and a small business is less likely to have an official sexual harassment policy and training program.”
2. Employee Training
Businesses have to conduct sexual harassment training, focusing on situations where it is likely. This should be done at least once a year. Go over it even if you and your employees think the policy has the feel of a sermon.
Conducting sexual harassment training goes a long way in reminding everyone that there are boundaries at the workplace and that everyone should be within those limits.
3. Channels for Filing Complaints
Set forth different channels of communication so that employees can make complaints. For instance, they can contact their immediate supervisor, or human resource department, or call a hotline.
Establishing communication channels will save you legal headaches. In Sexual Harassment, The Employer’s Role in Prevention, Mark I. Schickman says: “An important component of harassment prevention is the creation and dissemination of a sexual harassment prohibition policy and reporting procedure.
This policy is critical because under federal case law, an employer fulfills its obligation if it takes all reasonable steps to prevent harassment before it occurs, and to take effective steps to remedy harassment after it takes place. If an employer demonstrates those attempts at prevention and remediation, it might not be found liable for the act of harassment itself.”
4. Workplace Supervision
Have both formal and informal discussions with employees about the working environment. Unless working environment is safe, secure, and non-threatening, employees’ productivity tanks.
A Fact Sheet for Employees on Preventing Sexual Harassment mentions: “Retaliation against any employee who reports sexual harassment or who cooperates when the employer investigates a claim of sexual harassment is prohibited. The employer will want to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation of all complaints, and matters will be kept as confidential as possible.”
5. Maintain Confidentiality
Taking employees into confidence goes a long way in reducing the claims. You can make it clear to employees that their claims will be confidential and that their claims are not a threat to company’s image. Usually it so happens that bosses, obsessing over stability of operations, may feel the claims are a threat, and employee a mal-adjusted misfit. However, it may not be the case.
6. Investigate the Claims
Take the sexual harassment claims seriously. Very seriously. If those claims are not true, they, nevertheless, serve as a warning, and provide a peep into the very subjective nature of the claims. If the claims are true, well, you will be spared a stroll through a legal hellhole.
Theresa Donahue Egler observes in HRMagazine: “When it is considered that many more potentially explosive situations are quietly resolved (some at substantial cost) before reaching the complaint stage, it is readily apparent that sexual harassment is a risk that requires proactive management.”