The mountain of sexual harassment allegations against public figures reveals several critical lessons for companies to decode. To start with, these cases highlight how those in power verbally and physically intimidate and marginalize colleagues operating on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.
About 40% of women and 26% of men today reveal they’ve been sexually harassed at the workplace. Astonishingly, these numbers haven’t changed much since the 1980s. But despite widespread awareness of sexual misconduct circulating in a majority of workplaces, why do the numbers remain sky-high? How can these issues injure the company’s culture and reputation? What strategies must companies bring to the table to ensure the safety and welfare of all their employees? Take a deep dive into the article to understand.
Sexual Harassment Is Insidious to Company Culture
Harassment drives valuable employees to leave their jobs. When these employees (especially women) walk out the door, their potential, ideas, and relationships walk out with them. What enters instead, is another pile of expenses needed to hire and train new employees. The most debilitating effects of sexual harassment include damaged team functionality that in turn triggers negative financial repercussions – especially as far as employee turnover and productivity are concerned.
What Is Sexual Harassment
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . . 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 can take shape during a variety of circumstances, including when:
- The harasser can be the victim’s co-worker or supervisor, a supervisor from another area, or a non-employee (for example, a contractor, vendor, or customer).
- The harasser, as well as the victim, may be a man or a woman and the victim doesn’t necessarily have to be of the opposite sex.
- The victim is not always the person harassed but someone who can still be negatively affected by offensive misconduct.
What Sexual Harassment Does Not Mean
The line between what is and what is not sexual harassment is typically crystal clear. A quick look at the following set of examples can help highlight the boundaries further:
- An example that is NOT workplace sexual harassment: “You should dress more professionally.”
- An example of potential sexual harassment: “You should wear tighter outfits to impress your manager.”
Other instances that are NOT sexual harassment include:
- When the behavior between both parties is consensual.
- When a co-worker politely asks another co-worker out – if a company doesn’t have policies in place to prohibit co-workers from forming romantic relationships. It’s important to note that repeated requests by an individual after a co-worker has clarified they’re not interested would be considered sexual harassment.
- Any off-hand remark that is NOT followed by a sexual reference based on an employee’s sex and doesn’t lead to a hostile work environment.
The Roadmap to Addressing Sexual Harassment In Office
The moment any instance of sexual misconduct pops up, the company must immediately work towards straightening it out.
Have A Written Harassment Policy Crafted
The very first barricade to curb the instances of sexual harassment can be built by adopting and communicating a robust sexual harassment policy system. Here’s what the policy should include:
- The definition – “what is sexual harassment.”
- A clear-cut statement that any form of sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
- A statement urging the employees to report either experiencing or witnessing social harassment.
- Another statement shows strict prohibition of any form of retaliation against the employee who reports harassment.
- The names and contact details of supervisors who are responsible for handling harassment complaints.
- A statement that the ensuing investigation will be quick, thorough, and as confidential as possible.
- Another statement mentioning the company will take every possible corrective measure to tackle the case ethically – this means dismissing the harasser if need be.
Your company’s sexual harassment policy should be included in your employee handbook and also be circulated among the entire workforce. Each employee must acknowledge the contents of the policy.
Help Employees Understand the Type of Sexual Harassment.
You’ve crafted and enforced your sexual harassment policy – which is a great ethical milestone. But to report and act upon a sexual harassment case, employees and supervisors must know the type of complaint being reported.
The two common types include “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment”. Let’s understand each using an example:
- Quid pro quo: A talented employee does not get the promotions s/he deserves because s/he rejects the sexual advances of a supervisor.
- Hostile work environment: When an employee becomes the target of constant lewd remarks, inappropriate photos, or indecorous insults from supervisors, co-workers, or non-employees at work.
The goal of educating your workforce about a sexual harassment complaint is simple: no one must end up unwittingly engaging in this prohibited conduct.
Using the right tools, especially compliance training software, can help in training your workforce to grasp the meaning of sexual harassment. A full understanding by all staff can help your company avert most claims. But no office is perfect, and even the most ethical companies sometimes see cases of sexual harassment knock at their door.
If a complaining employee thinks their issue is not taken seriously, they will most likely end up filing a lawsuit against the company or a discrimination charge with the EEOC. For this reason, each time a complaint surfaces, make sure you run an immediate investigation.
By maintaining established, prompt, and consistent investigation processes, companies can gradually set the ethical bar high and significantly lower the occurrence of these events in the future.
Interviewing the Complainant, the Accused Employee, and Other Witnesses
Every harassment case must be investigated seriously, regardless of how trivial it seems. Investigators must gather as many details about the alleged harassment as possible. The following are the potential witnesses that need to be interviewed:
- The Complaining employee
- The Alleged Harasser
- Co-workers and supervisors
- Observers or any other witnesses identified by the complainant and the accused employee
Here’s a quick list of tips for conducting efficient interviews:
- Having two interviewers is usually the best approach. One is assigned the task of asking questions, and the other is responsible for taking detailed notes.
- Make the witnesses aware of the seriousness of the investigation, urge them to be truthful, and assure them of confidentiality.
- Inform all the witnesses (the exception being the alleged harasser) that no retaliatory action will be taken against them.
- During the interview, let each witness unfold their own version of the incident. Ask when and where the incident had occurred, what exactly happened, who was present, and what the overall order of events was.
- Finally, let each witness know they can always reach out should they think of any pertinent bits of information later.
Take Appropriate Action
Once the investigation reaches its fruition, the ensuing disciplinary action must be just as prompt, thorough, and fair.
- The investigators must carefully review all statements, notes, and documents.
- They must avoid jumping to hasty conclusions.
- Once it is determined that the incident has, in fact, occurred, the company must take strict action to avoid any cases of recurring harassment.
- The nature of disciplinary action should be determined based on the severity of the misconduct.
- Based on the severity of the harasser’s conduct, here are the possible courses of disciplinary action to take: a written apology, transferring the harasser to another department or job, terminating the harasser’s job contract, or any other course of action mentioned in the company’s pre-existing disciplinary procedure.
How NOT to Address Sexual Harassment At the Workplace
Addressing workplace sexual harassment is an incredibly sensitive affair. Even the smallest amount of negligence or any display of nepotism can crumble a seemingly well-performing company’s entire ethical and growth construct. Here are a few things to avoid when handling sexual misconduct:
- Simply believing either of the parties without running a detailed, evidence-based investigation.
- Not taking immediate action which can result in the employees signing a discriminatory charge with EEOC, turning to social media for help, leaving the company for good, or filing a lawsuit.
- Not being consistent with the investigations. For instance, a company may be proactive in addressing the few sexual harassment cases but eventually slack off down the line.
Can Employees Be Punished For Reporting Sexual Harassment?
As per the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal for employers to allow any form of sexual harassment at work. In addition, an employee – who is a victim or witness – of sexual harassment cannot be subjected to any form of retaliation should they choose to report such an event or participate in the ensuing investigation. So, if you sense or suffer from any form of sexual misconduct brewing in your workplace, do not hesitate to speak up!
Companies are at risk of losing valuable human and financial capital if they fail to have a solid mechanism in place to combat sexual bullying. Sexual harassment is more than just a “fleeting inconvenience” – if not addressed timely and appropriately, it plagues the company’s culture and brings down its reputation. All it takes is the right training and a strong sexual harassment policy to create a safe space for your employees to thrive.
About the Author
Giovanni Gallo is the Co-CEO of ComplianceLine, where his team strives to make the world a better workplace with compliance hotline services, sanction and license monitoring, and workforce eLearning software and services. When he’s not working, Gio’s wrangling his two young kids, riding his motorcycle, and supporting education, families, and the homeless in the Charlotte community.
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