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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How to Prevent and Address It

Sexual harassment is a problem facing companies of every shape and size, and the rise of the #MeToo movement in recent years has brought it sharply into focus.

If an employee of yours experiences sexual harassment in the workplace, you need to address it with integrity, compassion and confidentiality.

The Frequency of Sexual Harassment at Work

A study by McKinsey of Women in the Workplace showed that more than 1 out of 3 women had been subjected to harassment during their careers. This percentage increased to:

  • 45% of women who worked in technical fields,
  • 48% of lesbian women and
  • 55% of senior-level women.

Men also experience sexual harassment as well, with about 16% of the total complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2018 involving men.

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is a form of bullying and discrimination, which can be very damaging to victims regardless of age, gender and other factors. As an employer, you have a duty to prevent it from happening in your business. Some ways you can do this are:

1.   Develop a Sexual Harassment Policy

Working relationships in small companies are often much less formal than they are in larger corporations. Even if your company has only one or two employees, it’s important to have a written sexual harassment policy in place. If you don’t have such a policy, now’s the time to begin drafting it with input from all your stakeholders.

Your policy should contain basic parameters workers can easily understand and follow. These include:

  • Detailed descriptions of employees’ rights and responsibilities, so workers understand clearly what steps they can take to minimize the harassment.
  • A definition of what constitutes sexual harassment (and what doesn’t): It isn’t always clear or easy for staff to understand what constitutes sexual harassment and what doesn’t. Certain other types of harassment may contain a sexual component, while what people feel is “normal” behavior could be viewed by some as harassment. Even if the conduct doesn’t result in an economic impact on the victim, as long as it’s unwelcome it falls under the definition of harassment.
  • The types of sexual harassment that commonly happen, and how to recognize them: Some actions that could be viewed as sexual harassment include:
    • Uninvited sexual advances or touching
    • Asking for sexual favors
    • Suggesting that sexual activities (or the lack of them) could have a particular result
    • Telling jokes of a sexual nature designed to make listeners uncomfortable
    • Comments about a person’s appearance
    • Instigating conversations about sex
    • Making lewd, sexist or suggestive comments
    • Threats based on the rejection of sexual advances
    • Displays of pornographic or sexually explicit materials
  • Explanation of who can be a victim: According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the harassment can take multiple forms and can happen to anyone. Both the victim/s and the harasser/s can be:
    • A man, a woman or a gender-neutral person. The victim and the harasser don’t have to be opposite genders, either.
    • The person’s supervisor, employer, co-worker or even a nonemployee with exposure to the victim through work-related circumstances.
    • The victim could be anyone who is affected by what’s happening, it doesn’t have to be the person who is being harassed.
  • Details of the consequences facing perpetrators of sexual harassment. It’s important that your policy clearly outlines the consequences of committing sexual harassment. This gives it the power to deter potential harassers from acting and makes it possible to enforce these measures when you act in response to a complaint.

Start by researching the legal requirements for a sexual harassment policy under the laws of your state, city and industry. Once finalized, your document should be easy for your staff to access and make provision for them to file a complaint.

2.   Provide Training for Staff

Having a policy is a great first step, but it’s only helpful if your employees know where to find the information and how to implement it. No matter how small your team is, it’s part of your responsibility to provide training for them. Make sure all your staff members understand what to do if they or someone else in the company is being harassed.

Train all your supervisory and managerial staff on how to handle any incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace that they become aware of. Let all workers know they have the company’s full support in the event they experience harassment.

3.   Select People for Victims to Talk To

Instead of having just a single HR person or manager deal with sexual harassment incidents, arrange for several different authority figures to be available to talk to. Some employees will find a person of the same gender easier to speak with, while others will prefer to take their complaints outside the company. The more lines of communication you have for victims to choose from, the better.

4.   Establish a Complaints Procedure

Set up an established procedure for staff to file complaints. This should include details of the process to follow when reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. Workers should have options such as a choice of several channels to use. They should be able to choose who to file their report with, have the opportunity to file anonymously if they prefer, and be assured of discretion and confidentiality whether they disclose their identity or not.

A woman sexually harassing a male coworker in the workplace.

How to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

If, in spite of taking all the preventive measures listed above, your company still experiences incidents of sexual harassment, it’s important to address them in the right way. This can help the victims heal and help you to avoid future comebacks.

Receiving a Complaint

If an employee of your company (or a nonemployee with a company-related complaint) approaches you or another supervisor with a request for a confidential discussion, keep in mind that charges of sexual harassment in the workplace must be investigated by law.

If the complainant prefers not to take action, or even if you only hear rumors about harassment taking place from others, you have a duty to look into it. Make notes of the dates, times, circumstances and witnesses to each incident.

Notifying the Accused

It’s important to tell the accused that a complaint has been registered against them. Reassure them that every effort will be made to hold a fair and just investigation to determine the truth. Make it clear that no retaliation against the complainant or any witnesses will be tolerated.

Depending on the attitude of the accused, you might need to take the decision to suspend either the alleged harasser or the complainant while investigations take place.

Investigating Allegations

The first step in your investigation requires interviewing all parties concerned, including the alleged harasser. You can either do this personally, or you can assign the task to a human resources officer, someone uninvolved who has the managerial authority or an external party such as a consultant.

Ask open-ended questions and encourage each interviewee to reply using their own words. Collect evidence in the form of personal testimonies and any other materials available. Treat everyone you interview with the same level of respect and try to stay objective until you have all the information.

Making a Decision

When you have gathered all the information, consult with other managers or HR colleagues to get their input into whether harassment has taken place. At this point, you might consult an attorney. This will allow you to make sure you’re dealing with the situation as fairly as possible and to determine what your response should be.

Whether you use an attorney, you’ll be expected to take a final decision on the matter and to decide what consequences the accused should face.

Implementing Your Decision

Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment in the workplace should be disciplined in some way. Whether this takes the form of suspension without pay, changes to work or assignment settings or reporting lines or dismissal from the job, you need to implement these as quickly as possible.

Document the actions you take and follow up with the person who made the initial claim to ensure that they’re satisfied with your handling of the situation.

Handling sexual harassment isn’t a pleasant experience for either the victim or the person who addresses it. As a company owner or manager, it’s your role to ensure the people working for you feel safe and to take steps when they don’t, to rectify the situation.

Tracey Stepanchuk is a content creator focusing on financial management for small to medium-sized businesses. A former entrepreneur and business executive, she brings 20 years’ experience in management and technology to Fast Capital 360.
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