Your sexual harassment at work policy needs to be clear and complete, but the policy must then be followed by a strong and active training program.
Ever since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began its emphasis on ending sexual harassment at work, this issue has been one of the most difficult to police. A sexual harassment investigation after the fact is not the time to figure out how to prevent sexual harassment. Nor is it the time to answer questions like “When does ‘kidding around’ become sexual harassment at work?” Or “From whose perspective is it harassment?” You need to take appropriate steps before harassment happens.
Not just sexual harassment anymore
That need has recently become greater. EEOC and state agencies, backed by recent court decisions, are pushing the boundaries of the harassment issue. Harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, age and disability all now have joined sexual harassment on the government’s hit list. And that’s whether the harassment is via overt statements or actions, or through the more subtle creation of a “hostile environment” at work. Either way, woe to the employer that remains in the path of official fire on this one.
Zero tolerance to training … your sexual harassment at work policy needs it all
The first line of defense against any form of harassment is a complete antiharassment policy. Complete, says employment attorney Michael Roumell, means that it includes the eight elements listed below. Roumell developed this checklist for sexual harassment at work, but it would apply to any form in which harassment appears. See how your policy measures up:
- Zero Tolerance – Since sexual harassment at work is an issue with many potential “gray” areas, cast your policy in stark black and white. Employees should feel uneasy even thinking of their co-workers in sexual terms lest they cross a line that they didn’t even know was there.
- Examples: Illustrations of what can be construed as sexual harassment at work will clarify your policy.
- Definition: A clear definition of sexual harassment at work is a must-have.
- Duty to Report: Employees who feel they’ve suffered sexual harassment at work must understand that their part in the process is a timely and accurate report to the appropriate management authority.
- Retaliation: Since sexual harassment at work is often a power move by a supervisor over a subordinate, those who’ve been subjected to harassment or witnessed it must know they have protection against later vengeful acts. Your policy must contain a strong antiretaliation statement.
- Complaint procedure: Every step should be clearly spelled out. The sexual harassment investigation process should also be detailed.
- Confidentiality: Victims of sexual harassment at work often feel embarrassed about it. Make things easier by promising the greatest confidentiality possible. You cannot, however, promise absolute confidentiality as you may be compelled to provide information to law enforcement or litigating attorneys, as well as to others during the sexual harassment investigation.
- Training. Training is a must-have, not only as a point of sexual harassment policy at work but also as an active program.
Corrections department’s sexual harassment program needed correction
That final point became abundantly clear in a New Jersey case a few years ago, in which a female corrections officer lodged charges against her captain. The county government that employed them both had a strong sexual harassment policy in place but not the training program to go with it. Even though lower courts ruled that the policy alone freed the employer from liability, the New Jersey Supreme Court eventually decided to punish the county for not following its words with appropriate deeds.
Bottom line: If you’re looking to prevent harassment at work, sexual or otherwise, remember that a complete program, and not only a complete policy, will be what you need.