A Practical Guide

From 9-to-5, our time belongs to others-be it customers, clients coworkers or colleagues-our time is shared. And how we spend it-and with whom we spend it-isn’t usually in our control. But one thing that should be in our control-regardless of our industry, gender, position or even time of day-is sexual harassment in the workplace. No one has the time, nor the patience, for a hostile work environment. Nor should they.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is more prevalent than we’d like to admit. But there is good news. More and more companies are taking a stand against it and educating their workforce about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace-and what is a hostile work environment-and how to prevent these situations from taking over our workspace.

We know that at any given time, employees can find themselves in situations where the distinction between what is and isn’t appropriate isn’t clear. And even the best business ethics training or sexual harassment training can’t prepare everyone for every single scenario. But proper education, especially as it relates to prevention, needs to start somewhere. And it needs to start now.

What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

The definition of sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment.

Types of harassment that are unacceptable include:

  • Verbal harassment: making or using derogatory comments, slurs and jokes
  • Verbal sexual advances or propositions
  • Verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic verbal commentaries about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual, suggestive or obscene letters, notes or invitations
  • Demeaning comments about customers or coworkers of a sexual nature
  • Sexually explicit language and/or jokes
  • Any type of sexual contact in order to remain employed
  • Leering, making sexual gestures, displaying of suggestive objects or pictures, cartoon or posters
  • Touching, assault, impeding or blocking movements
  • Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors
  • Making or threatening reprisals after a negative response to sexual advances

Anyone can be a harasser and anyone can be harassed; but no one should be either.

Legally speaking, who is liable for what?

It should go without saying, that as an employer, it is 100 percent unlawful to sexually harass employees, vendors and/or customers. But if harassment does occur on your watch, even if you’re not made aware of it, employers are typically held responsible-to an extent. Employers may only be able to avoid liability if:

  • The harasser is a non-management employee and the employer takes immediate and appropriate corrective action to stop the harassment once the employer learns about it;
  • The employer had no knowledge of the harassment, and there was a program to prevent harassment. Both of these parts must be there.

Every state has different rules and regulations regarding sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace, but as a rule of thumb, here are some generally promoted guidelines employers should follow:

  • Employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.
  • Employers must display a poster made available by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing somewhere in the workplace (i.e. break room, above the copier, restroom).
  • Employers must help ensure a workplace free from sexual harassment by distributing to employees information on sexual harassment, including:
    • The illegality of sexual harassment
    • The definition of sexual harassment under state and federal laws
    • A description and examples of sexual harassment
    • The internal complaint process of the employer available to the employee
    • The legal remedies and complaint process available through outside agencies, along with the contact information of those agencies
    • The protections available against retaliation

Ways to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

1) Training

The most practical way to prevent harassment is to implement a sexual harassment workplace training program. A well-designed training program can be a solid first step towards eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace, or at the very least, minimizing damages if harassment occurs in spite of your best preventative efforts.

The overall purpose of any sexual harassment training is to align your entire workforce against harassment-after all, it’s a lot easier to fight harassment when everyone is on the same page. When your employees know what is expected of them-and what is expected of management in return-they are more likely to feel comfortable and safe at work. And a happy employee will help your bottom line, as well as your company’s overall morale and cohesiveness.

Not all sexual harassment prevention courses are created equally, however, so, what should you keep in mind when implementing one in your company?

Here are a few suggestions:

Illustrate your point

Think back to when you were 16 and watched those horrendous driving safety videos. You were probably distracted by outdated styles, cheesy dialogue and flat-out bad acting. But actors are replaced or supplemented with illustrations in training materials, our brains to process the information at hand differently.

Using examples and illustrations as a part of your training will:

  • Allow employees to focus on the content rather than focusing any outdated or corny acting.
  • Create easier customization options. For instance, you can design culturally-appropriate, branded trainings that fit with your company culture.
  • Make it easier to update content regularly and keep it up to date.
Frequency

Every workplace should conduct a sexual harassment training course at least once a year for all employees. At this workshop, you should discuss what is workplace sexual harassment, explain employees’ rights, review the complaint procedure and encourage employees to use it properly. Additionally, training sessions for supervisors and managers should be held separate from the employee sessions-also at a minimum of once a year-to educate the managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and explain how to deal with complaints from a supervisory role.

Relevance

Your company’s branding and voice should be apparent in all of your training materials. A corporate environment may not face the same issues and challenges as a large industrial factory. Millennials and baby boomers are going to process information differently. And if you are part of a global enterprise, there will definitely be discrepancies that could be lost in translation if you’re not careful. Employees are more apt to understand what is expected of them if they are able to relate to the materials and examples used in the training materials.

2) Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedure

Another important element needed to prevent sexual harassment on the job is an official complaint process. All employers should outline in detail the sexual harassment complaint procedure for employees as a way to encourage them to report unwanted and inappropriate behaviors. And once a complaint is filed, it’s the responsibility-and liability-of the employer to take swift and appropriate action to stop and to minimize any effects of the harassment.

These steps may include:

Fully informing the complainant of his/her rights

  • Fully and effectively investigating the claim.
  • If harassment is proven, there must be prompt and effective remedial action.
3) Awareness

Lastly, it’s up to the employer to be seen-not just heard. By inserting yourself into the everyday work environment, employees will be able to see upper management as accessible and familiar; and they’ll also know you’re watching. It will allow you to keep tabs on things you may not be privy to seeing or hearing when your door is closed. Do you see any signs of a hostile work environment? Are you hearing verbal harassment around the workplace? Keep the lines of communication with your employees open, while periodically asking them for input, ideas and suggestions on ways to make the workplace better.

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