Sexual Harassment… Do you have a Zero-Tolerance Policy in Place?
“Today” show anchor Matt Lauer, Senator Al Franken, Actor Kevin Spacey, and others have all made the latest headlines being accused of sexual harassment. Besides termination, losing contracts, or forced resignment actions there may be legal ramifications. The question remains, do you have a zero-tolerance policy in place for sexual harassment clearly stated in your employee handbook or contract documents?
Are You Trained to Handle Sexual Harassment Allegations?
It is important that supervisors develop a relationship in which employees will come to them with complaints. In addition, they need strong skills in listening, communicating, and documenting. Supervisors play a critical role in making sure retaliation does not occur. Companies should want to train supervisors to handle complaints, prevent retaliation, and resolve conflicts, especially regarding things like harassment, which if handled wrong, could be very costly.
What is Sexual Harassment? Here is an Example:
Roger was immediately attracted to the new receptionist Judy, since her first day with the company. He began flirting with her and then asked her for a date. Judy did not share the same attraction as Roger and did not accept his invitation to go out. Almost daily Roger would stop by making some comments about her hair, how good she looked, and other flirtatious comments. He continued asking her out and attempting to win her over until Judy complained to her supervisor.
Often what starts out as good intentions or other seemingly harmless behavior can lead to harassment and/or a hostile work environment.
Harassment is defined as conduct that interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. This would include, but not be limited to, threats or offensive conduct directed toward a person’s sexual orientation, race, age, disability, religion, national origin, or veteran’s status. This includes environmental and quid pro quo (this for that) sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or requests for sexual favors, and other offensive conduct that is either sexual in nature or directed at someone because of his or her gender. Harassment, whether sexual or based on those characteristics listed above, may take many forms. By way of example, harassment may include:
Verbal Conduct: Includes suggestive comments, repeated sexual flirtation, derogatory jokes, name-calling, innuendoes, demeaning slurs, unwanted kidding or teasing, foul or obscene language, gender-based co1nments, or discussions of a sexual nature.
Visual Conduct: Includes leering, derogatory or sexually-oriented posters, photography, cartoons, drawings, graffiti, electronic mail, or gestures.
Physical Conduct: Includes assault, offensive touching, patting, pinching, pushing, blocking of normal movement, or interfering with work.
Threats or Demands: Includes requiring sexual favors as a condition of continued employment or threatening other physical or verbal abuse.
Harassment can also take the form of a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is a work environment made intolerable to a reasonable person by the frequency, severity or pervasiveness of objectionable words, actions or other materials of a sexual nature, or materials that direct hostility at people because of their ethnicity, race or age. In other words, employees who experience sexual or non-sexual harassment can claim the discrimination created a hostile work environment.
How Can I Prevent Harassment?
- Policy & Expectations – Create a clear company policy that defines harassment, prohibits harassment, sets expectations, educates employees on their rights and responsibilities, and has a complaint reporting procedure.
- Employee Training – Train employees in how to prevent harassment, what it is and how to respond if they see or experience harassment in the work environment.
- Leader Training – Educate supervisors about how they should respond to inappropriate behavior in the work environment and when someone approaches with a complaint. Train leaders to actively be aware of risks and how to reinforce your policy. Train those who conduct investigations on how to properly conduct them, document findings and take corrective action.
- Empower Employees – Employees share responsibility for maintaining a positive, productive environment, free from harassment. Encourage them to confront individuals who exhibit harassing behaviors asking them to stop, and to report harassment that does not stop. Encourage employees to come forward with any concerns or questions about harassment.
- Complaint Process – Clearly communicate a complaint process and alternative avenues in your handbook, during new hire orientation, and during training.
- Investigations –Treat all complaints seriously. Investigate to obtain the facts and details of what happened, witnesses present, and other facts relevant to the situation. Remember to objectively obtain both sides of the story before reaching a conclusion.
- Corrective Action – After you reach a conclusion based on the facts of the complaint, take the steps necessary to eliminate the risk — letting the punishment fit the crime. For example, someone telling inappropriate jokes may be reminded of the policy and asked to stop, whereas someone who touches another person inappropriately may be terminated.
- Documentation – Document all complaints, evidence obtained, witnesses, testimonies, and actions taken in response to all complaints.
- Don’t Retaliate – Make sure that retaliation does not occur to employees who complain. Retaliation can be blatant like terminating someone shortly after a complaint or be more subtle like scoring them lower in a performance review or moving them to another department.
- Dating – Supervisors should avoid dating employees who report directly to them to avoid the risk of being accused of quid pro quo “this for that” sexual harassment, not to mention the challenges related to perceptions of favoritism.
Creating a work environment free of risky harassing behaviors not only eliminates high lawsuit risks but also ensures a happier workplace. Harassment in any form creates undue stress, negativity, and conflict, which can damage teamwork, relationships, and productivity. Be clear about expectations, define a complaint process, and educate, educate, educate.
By Ken Spencer, President/HR Coach, HR Service, Inc.