The cascading allegations against men of power in the arts, entertainment and political realms – and the rise of the #MeToo movement in response – have focused the nation’s attention on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many working women like myself are finding that few if any in our circle of friends and colleagues have not had some form of unwanted advance from a man at work.
Lest you think this is not happening in your organization, consider that surveys show that as many as 88 percent of women say that they have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment, so the odds are good that it has happened or could happen in your workplace.
At the same time, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that a quarter of respondents had a consensual romance with a boss or colleague at work, and that 15 percent of married couples met at work. So if you are trying to grapple with what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, you’re not alone. Here are some key things for you to consider:
Sexual harassment is not always obvious and can be difficult to detect.
- The government has a broad definition for what can constitute sexual harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when 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.
- It doesn’t matter what a person’s intentions are; what counts is how the person’s actions or comments are perceived. This point is clearly lost on many of the high-profile men who have recently been accused of harassment – their public statements all seem to include some form of the sentiment: “I never intended to make [the subject] uncomfortable.” But the law does not concern itself with the intention of the harasser; rather, it is concerned with how those actions are perceived by the recipient.
- The person filing the complaint doesn’t have to be the one directly harassed; it can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Conversely, the person who did the harassing doesn’t have to be an employee; it can be a client, vendor, or other third party.
- Business owners can be held liable for supervisors’ actions, even if those actions violated company policy. Critical to this point is how the employer investigated and addressed the harassment or whether the employer created an environment whereby an individual would feel comfortable reporting an incident of sexual harassment.
What employers should do to protect themselves and their employees.
Fortunately, there are relatively simple steps you can take to protect your employees and your business.
- Harassment Policy – You should have a well-written, zero-tolerance policy and detailed complaint procedure in your employee handbook. It should define what constitutes sexual harassment, the process for reporting incidents of harassment, the possible consequences for violations of the policy, and a clear statement that the company complies with all federal, state and local laws relating to harassment and discrimination of all kinds. If you do not have a policy or have not reviewed it in recent years, now is the time to create one or dust off the old one and give it a solid review. And, in light of recent events, having everyone review and sign off on the policy again, even if no changes are made, isn’t a bad idea either.
- Fraternization Policy – You may also want to consider a policy dealing with workplace romance. Such policies often require that both parties sign a statement that the relationship is consensual and that they release the employer from any liability that is the result of the relationship. The policy should also strictly prohibit relationships between a manager/supervisor and a direct report and should specify what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate at work.
- Communication – Actively communicate your policies and your commitment to a harassment-free workplace on a regular basis. Seeing that leaders of the organization take this issue seriously will ensure employees will feel safe to report instances and will go a long way to showing your good-faith effort to keeping all employees safe.
- Training – Train employees and supervisors on what harassment is, how to avoid it, and how to file a complaint. While training is not a legal requirement in most states, courts and the EEOC agree that meaningful, interactive training carries significant weight in determining to what extent a company attempted to protect its employees from harassment. Our best advice is to train every year or two years so that employees keep the information fresh in their minds and understand how seriously you take issue of workplace harassment.
- Monitor – Be active in the management of employees and monitor their behaviors and actions. One of the biggest mistakes managers make is in assuming harassment and demeaning behavior is not happening. Given what we’re witnessing now, it is quite likely that harassment is occurring in some way, shape or form. Managers need to know how to spot possible situations and how to handle them. And don’t assume harassment is only toward women – the law is gender-neutral, and almost 17 percent of claims filed in 2016 were filed by men.
These truly feel like extraordinary times, with each day bringing news of another beloved actor or TV personality or respected politician losing his job due to inappropriate behavior. Yet, as depressing as this is, it also gives us all the opportunity to look within ourselves and our companies to ensure we are doing all that we can to protect our employees from inappropriate and illegal behavior. That can only be a good thing.
By Claudia St. John, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, President – Affinity HR Group, Inc.
Claudia St. John is president of Affinity HR Group, Inc., NAWLA’s affiliated human resources partner. Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as NAWLA and their member companies. To learn more, visit www.affinityhrgroup.com.