It may not be widely known, but employers are as responsible for sexual harassment outside of work as they are for harassment that occurs during work hours—when that harassment involves other employees, vendors, customers, or clients. As SHRM’s sample Sexual Harassment Out Of Work Policy and Complaint/Investigation Procedure states, “Employees are prohibited from harassing others both on and off the employer premises and during or outside of work hours.”
What might this entail? A manager becoming overly friendly and physically groping an employee at a work event held offsite. Harassment occurring through social media sites. Inappropriate behavior between employees while traveling on business.
Examples of Coworker Sexual Harassment Outside of Work
In the New Hampshire case of McGuinn-Rowe v. Foster’s Daily Democrat, a female employee accused a management-level employee of making inappropriate contact with her at a bar. The employer argued that because the conduct “occurred away from the workplace and outside normal working hours,” it wasn’t liable. The Court, however, still applied sexual harassment laws outside of work since they were coworkers. With social media being so prevalent, it’s also important to note that social media channels can be an easy initiator for harassment.
Employee Harassment Outside the Workplace Can Create a Hostile Work Environment
Why is employee sexual harassment outside of work still considered the employer’s responsibility? Such behavior still serves to create a hostile work environment when the employee is back on the clock. A supervisor who made inappropriate physical contact with an employee at the Friday night happy hour event is the same person who the employee will need to interact with while back on the job. A coworker sending sexually explicit messages and images via Facebook over the weekend is still somebody the employee will have to interact with during the work week.
The key takeaway: whether it’s harassment outside the workplace during or after work hours, employers and their supervisors and managers are still responsible. Because of this, it’s important for employers to include this information in employee policies and training materials.
Taking a Proactive, Positive Stance Against Sexual Harassment
It’s also important to take a proactive and positive approach. There are a variety of reasons why most company efforts to minimize or eliminate harassment have not worked. The proactive, positive approach involves:
- Creating a broader focus on a positive work environment and culture, with less focus on negative messaging that places employees in victim and perpetrator roles
- Focusing on what you want to see, not what you don’t want to see
- Enlisting employees in efforts to create a positive culture by teaching them to be effective bystanders, educating them on the role they can play, and providing ongoing communication and support
Reframing these conversations can lead to better results and better employee engagement. Whether it occurs in the office, in a car, at a conference, or at a coworker’s wedding, harassment is harassment. Make sure that your company’s leaders, managers, supervisors, and employees all understand that the creation of a safe, supportive company environment doesn’t stop when an employee leaves the building.