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A Starter Guide to Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Posted November 20, 2017 by Sasha Butkovich in Keeping Compliant
For business owners who want to develop healthy companies, it’s crucial to take steps to address workplace harassment.

Sexual harassment seems to be dominating the news cycles lately, as many high-profile cases come to light. Unpleasant as it may be, workplace harassment is an important topic for business owners to think about, and work to prevent.

In 2016, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) had more than 6,700 charges alleging sex-based harassment.

“That can include unwelcome advances or it can include gender-based harassment, which might be comments that are demeaning to a particular gender,” said Jenny Yang, Commissioner and former Chair of the EEOC.

Psst... Taking a firm stance against workplace harassment is one way to foster happy, healthy employees. Get hundreds more employee happiness ideas with our Employee Hapiness Toolkit.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is a serious issue for all types of employers, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Besides the obvious possibility of embarrassing and costly lawsuits resulting from sexual harassment and retaliation claims, there are additional reasons to tackle harassment.

When your company has strong policies against harassment that are clearly communicated and enforced throughout the organization, it helps employees to feel safe in their work environment. This can boost employee morale and retention, strengthening the overall health of the company.

Not sure where to begin? While many aspects of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace will require the help of legal counsel to finalize, here’s an overview of some steps to help you get started.

1. Find Out Which Laws Apply to Your Business

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its state and local equivalents.

The EEOC defines harassment as: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Sexual harassment prevention training requirements generally vary by state. For example, Maine and California have both passed legislation that mandates training. In Maine, companies with 15 or more employees are required to receive sexual harassment prevention training, while California’s law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees and is required only for supervisory employees.

Some states, such as Florida, require training only for specified government employees. Make sure to look up the laws within your state to determine which apply to your business.

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Additionally, these laws often require businesses to display posters within the workplace that provide information about the law. Take note of these provisions in any applicable laws so that you can be sure to keep compliant.

Some business owners may find that their company is not subject to any requirements regarding anti-harassment training. Even where this is the case, training all employees is a best practice. It demonstrates a company’s commitment to maintaining a harassment-free workplace and reduces the risk of legal claims. Having clear policies and training on sexual harassment can also help foster a healthier, happier workplace, which is always a good goal to aim for.

2. Create and Communicate Your Policies

It is a best practice for any business to have an employee handbook that outlines the company policies. The next step is to make sure your company’s handbook includes a section on anti-harassment, including sexual harassment.

A robust anti-harassment policy demonstrates that an employer is serious about preventing sexual harassment. In addition, such policy provides a mechanism for internal complaints that helps resolve employee concerns before they escalate into litigation. This policy should:

  • State that the company prohibits harassment, including sexual harassment
  • Define harassment and sexual harassment, and include examples
  • Explain how to report concerns of inappropriate conduct, providing employees more than one way to report any concerns
  • State that the company prohibits retaliation against any employee in response to filing or responding to a bona fide complaint of discrimination or harassment, appearing as a witness in the investigation of a complaint, or serving as an investigator of a complaint
  • Outline any consequences offenders will face

It is important to communicate any changes or additions to the policy to all your employees. A best practice is to ask employees to sign an acknowledgement that they received and read a copy of the policy, and understand that it’s their responsibility to be familiar with and abide by its terms. This helps to ensure that everyone understands the policy and is on the same page.

Having clear policies and training on sexual harassment can help foster a healthier, happier workplace.

3. Train Your Supervisors

Training supervisors within the company is an important first step in implementing workplace anti-harassment policies. You will want to check any applicable laws, as there may be training requirements.

There are many resources available to guide you on developing a training plan, even if your state or local laws don’t outline the requirements. A quick online search will give you plenty of results to suit whatever your needs may be.

As a brief outline, sexual harassment prevention training should include the following topics:

  • Defining sexual harassment, including examples
  • Employer and individual supervisor liability
  • Conduct outside of the workplace and on social media
  • Retaliation claims
  • Types of remedies
  • Obligation to report
  • Reporting and escalation procedures

Supervisor training should focus on a supervisor's role and responsibilities, such as knowledge of the policy and procedures, reporting obligations, and refraining from retaliation.

4. Train the Rest of Your Employees

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Communicating your company’s anti-harassment policy to all employees is key, but you don’t have to stop there. Whether or not state or local laws require a more formal training for all employees, such training can be a good idea.

Bringing all team members together to learn about your company’s anti-harassment policies and create awareness helps to enforce respectful behavior, prevent workplace harassment, and hopefully help with retention. Encourage employees to use the internal complaint mechanism.

Additionally, make sure to include all your employees in these trainings, not just full-time workers. Part-time and temporary employees should also be required to attend.

5. Enforce the Policy Consistently

A policy is just words on a page if there’s nothing to back it up. Once you have put the policy in place and trained the organization, make sure that policy gets enforced consistently. All employees should be required to adhere to the company’s anti-harassment policy, and be held accountable if they fail to do so.

Addressing concerns in a timely manner is a key element of demonstrating that an anti-harassment policy holds weight.

6. Investigate Internal Complaints Promptly and Take Appropriate Action

Similarly, it's important to promptly respond to sexual harassment complaints. Addressing any issues in a timely manner is another key element of demonstrating that the policy holds weight, and you’re serious about upholding it.

When appropriate, conduct a thorough investigation. After the investigation, take the appropriate corrective actions.

7. Protect Your Company

Even if you take all the right steps, it may also be wise to protect your company with Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI). EPLI provides coverage for claims made by employees, former employees, and potential employees alleging wrongful employment acts, including sexual harassment.

Justworks provides access to EPLI coverage with one of the leading providers in the industry. An EPLI policy can give you that extra peace of mind knowing that your company has coverage should claims arise.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.