Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

January 17, 2018 | Article

By Lauri Dahlberg

In the wake of the sexual harassment tidal wave sweeping across the political, media and entertainment industries, employers are left wondering whether they are doing all they can to provide a work environment for their employees that is free from harassment—specifically sexual harassment. The good news is, there are a few things employers can do right away to mitigate risk in this area.

What Is Harassment?
Before identifying how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s important to understand exactly what it is. Sexual harassment, as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” What may or may not be known is that it can also include offensive remarks or offhand comments that happen often enough and are severe enough to make the workplace feel uncomfortable or “hostile.” And, harassment is in the eye of the beholder—not the in the intent of the person making the comment(s) or behaving in a manner that creates an uncomfortable work environment. With this in mind, employers and employees need to be careful with how they conduct themselves in the workplace.

Start with Proper Policy
The best approach to work environment harassment is to prevent it from happening in the first place. A good place to start is with a workplace policy. An appropriate policy will be written in terms that all employees can understand and will explain the process for reporting harassment, as well as the potential “punishment” for committing harassment. The policy can be part of an employee handbook or policy manual, and a signed acknowledgement form should be gathered from each employee to document the policy has been reviewed with them. A good time to review the policy and collect the acknowledgement form is during new hire training. If a company does not have a harassment policy, one should be created and communicated to all employees with the requirement that an acknowledgement form be signed and returned within a specific time frame. Acknowledgement forms should be retained in each employee’s personnel file.

Train Everyone Regularly
Once a policy is in place, training the workforce on how to prevent harassment is the next step. Media Partners, Kantola Training Solutions and Skillsoft are training companies that produce harassment prevention and awareness videos, and provide several options for employers to choose from to ensure they select a training that best suits their workforce (be it professional services, construction, or something in-between). Harassment prevention training should be conducted as part of orientation with refresher training required every three to five years thereafter. A method for tracking when an employee has completed the training is recommended, and training records should be included in the employee’s personnel file.

Investigating Claims
If a company finds itself in the midst of a harassment claim, the best process to follow is one that is confidential with a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation. A human resources professional is typically the most appropriate person to conduct the investigation to gather facts from the individuals involved in the situation (including witnesses). Once the investigation is concluded, immediate and appropriate corrective action should be taken, which may include a warning for minor offenses or termination for gross misconduct. Whatever action is taken, it should be handled professionally and confidentially. Witnesses and/or the person bringing the claim forward may not be privy to the outcome details.

It is also important to understand that if an employee posts #metoo through social media, and that post is brought to the attention of someone within the company, the company will put itself at risk if it does not investigate it further.

Review Your Plan
With the recent rise in media attention surrounding claims of sexual harassment, employers are left wondering if their businesses are susceptible to claims of their own. At this pivotal time, it is important for companies to review their policies, practices and prevention techniques to ensure they are doing all they can to provide a harassment-free workplace.

If your business is unsure of how to navigate these waters, contact an Eide Bailly human resources consultant. We are here to help you succeed.

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