Your Guide to Preventing Sexual Harassment At Work
From 9-to-5, our time belongs to others. Be it with customers, clients, coworkers, or colleagues — our time is shared. 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 always — regardless of our industry, gender, position, or even time of day — is sexual harassment in the workplace. No one has the time, energy, or patience for sexual misconduct in the workplace, nor should they.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment at work is more prevalent than we’d like to admit. But there is good news. More and more companies are recognizing the need for sexual harassment prevention training that covers topics like:
- Harassment and discrimination for supervisors and non-supervisors
- Diversity and inclusion
- Managing bias
- Bystander intervention
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 sexual harassment awareness and 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 sexual harassment in the workplace 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, cartoons 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 sexually harassed; but no one should be either.
Legally Speaking, Who Is Liable for What?
Employers are typically held responsible in cases of sexual harassment. Every state has different rules and regulations regarding discrimination and sexual 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 awareness, 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) Sexual Harassment Prevention Training
The most practical way to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is to implement a sexual harassment prevention 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 sexual misconduct in the workplace 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. Plus, a happy employee will help your company’s overall morale and cohesiveness, as well as your bottom line.
Not all sexual harassment prevention courses are created equally 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, when actors are replaced or supplemented with illustrations in training materials, our brains tend to process the information presented differently.
Using examples and illustrations as a part of your sexual harassment awareness training will:
- Allow employees to focus on the content instead of outdated or corny acting
- Create easier customization options. For instance, you can design culturally-appropriate, branded training that fits with your company culture
- Make it easier to update content regularly and keep it up to date with state regulations
Every workplace should conduct a sexual harassment training course at least once a year for all employees. At the conclusion of your workshop, your employees should be able to answer questions like:
- What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
- What rights do employees have?
- What is the company’s complaint procedure and how do you use it properly?
Additionally, training sessions for supervisors and managers should be held separately from non-supervisor sessions. They should be required every year at a minimum in order to educate managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and explain how to handle complaints as a supervisor.
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 may be nuances 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 sexual harassment training.
2) Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedure
Another important element needed to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is an official complaint process. All employers should specify the sexual harassment complaint procedure for employees and encourage them to report unwanted and inappropriate behaviors. Once a complaint is filed, it’s the responsibility — and liability — of the employer to take swift and appropriate action to stop 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.
Lastly, it’s critical for leadership to be seen — not just heard. By inserting yourself into the everyday work environment, employees will grow to see upper management as accessible and familiar; and they’ll also know you’re watching. This 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 misconduct in the workplace or 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.