Nearly everyone knows that sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. But not everyone knows exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, and what employers can do to prevent it. Let’s review the legal definition of sexual harassment, and then take a look at some tips for employers on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment
From a legal standpoint, there are two different categories of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo—In this type of sexual harassment, some type of work benefit is made subject to some type of sexual favor, or it is implied that the employee will be negatively affected if he or she does not comply. By definition, this type of sexual harassment typically occurs between a supervisor and subordinate simply because the supervisor is in a position to be able to offer better terms (such as a promotion) or is able to fire or demote. This person has the power to hold such things over the employee.
- Hostile work environment—This type of sexual harassment can occur between any employees. It refers to the situation where an employee is offended or made to feel harassed by other employees. It could come in the form of touching, offensive jokes, inappropriate décor, or other intimidating or unwelcome behavior. (These are just a few examples.)
Sexual harassment is prohibited, just like gender-based discrimination is prohibited. Most states have their own specific laws that relate to sexual harassment as well.
Tips to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Employers have an obligation to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace. If it can be shown that the employer knew or should have known that the harassment was occurring and they did not take all reasonable actions to stop it, then the employer can be held liable for an individual’s actions. Here are some tips for employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Create and communicate a clear antiharassment policy, including anti-retaliation components. Get legal advice on this policy to ensure it is complete and that it complies with all federal, state, and local laws. Once complete, ensure that your policy is in the employee handbook and that every employee has a copy.
- Conduct sexual harassment training and retraining for everyone, especially all supervisors and managers, on at least an annual basis. Everyone in the organization should understand what sexual harassment is and what to do if it occurs. (Note: in some states this training is mandatory.)
- Ensure managers and supervisors understand their obligation to maintain zero tolerance for harassment in the workplace.
- Monitor emails and other electronic communications to scan for harassing content. Monitor behavior too. It is important as an employer to be on the lookout for inappropriate behavior and stop it right away.
- Ensure employees know their options if they find themselves in such a situation. Employees should know that they have the right to request the behavior to stop (and they should do so if possible). But employees should also know what to do next if they don’t feel safe asking the person or people involved to stop, or if doing so does not stop the unwanted behavior.
- Clearly define the process to submit a complaint, including a process for situations where the direct supervisor can be bypassed if necessary.
- Define clear consequences for such behavior and consistently apply these when harassing behavior is discovered.
- Cultivate a culture where sexual harassment is not welcome or tolerated. This might include many things. For example:
- Ensure that work-sponsored activities after hours are professional in nature.
- Ensure that supervisors and managers know where to draw the line with employees in terms of tolerating off-color jokes and other offensive material. The workplace is not a place for crude jokes.
- If a complaint comes in, treat it with complete care and always investigate. Treat every complaint seriously.
- If harassment is discovered, take immediate and appropriate action to ensure it doesn’t happen again, including disciplining or even terminating the employee(s) responsible.
- Do not tolerate retaliatory behavior against someone who has filed a complaint.
- Have a clear process for investigating any complaint of harassment. If a complaint comes in, look into it immediately and, if necessary, take steps to ensure the behavior stops while the investigation is ongoing. Take every complaint seriously.
Obviously, it’s a good idea to prevent sexual harassment if it all possible. Not only is it a legal obligation, but it’s also smart business. After all, a hostile work environment is not a good recipe for maximum productivity.
What other steps does your organization take to prevent all types of workplace harassment?
*This article does not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.
About Bridget Miller:
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.