How to Create an Effective Sexual Harassment Policy

It’s important to protect your employees and vendors from sexual harassment. This post is intended to offer some possible workplace policies that could help prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.

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Defining Sexual Harassment

Sex discrimination harassment is defined as unlawful harassment of any person, applicant or employee based on the person’s gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Harassment can include sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. It can also include sex-based harassment, which consists of offensive remarks made about a person’s gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The law does not prohibit things like simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents. However, if the harassment becomes so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, the behavior becomes illegal. The law also prohibits harassment that results in unfair employment decisions, such as the victim being fired or demoted.

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor or manager, a supervisor or manager in another area, a coworker, or someone who is not an employee, such as a client, vendor or customer. Both the victim and the harasser can be of any gender, and the victim does not have to be the opposite sex.

In some cases of sexual harassment, the victim does not have to be the person being harassed. Anyone affected by the offensive conduct can be a victim. For instance, an employee who overhears offensive or discriminatory conversations between colleagues can be a victim, even though the comments are not directed towards them. If the remarks are unwelcome, offensive and create a hostile work environment, they can be considered sex-based harassment.

Some examples of sexual harassment are:

  • A supervisor suggests to an employee that the employee must sleep with him to keep a job.
  • A clerk makes demeaning comments about customers to his coworkers.
  • A supervisor in a firm is made uncomfortable by senior managers who regularly tell jokes of a sexual nature.
  • A worker at a store fondles a coworker against his will.
  • A female employee’s coworkers refer to her by sexist or demeaning terms.
  • Several employees post sexually explicit jokes on an interoffice message board.
  • An employee sends emails to coworkers that contain jokes of a sexual nature.

Risk Factors of Sexual Harassment

On average, 76 harassment charges are filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) every day. Harassment charges, including sexual harassment, totaled over 26,000 for the fiscal year 2019. The total financial cost to employers over the past seven years was nearly $700 million. The cost to employers also includes decreased productivity, increased sick leave, increased turnover and reputational damage.

Risk factors of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • A homogenous workforce that lacks diversity
  • Workplaces where some employees do not conform to workplace norms
  • Cultural and language differences in the workplace
  • Social boundaries outside the workplace
  • Younger workforces that include teens and young adults
  • Workplaces with employee favoritism
  • Workplaces with significant differences in power among employees
  • Workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction
  • Workplaces where work is monotonous or tasks are low intensity
  • Isolated workplaces
  • Physically isolated or independent workers
  • Workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption
  • Decentralized workplaces, where central offices are not at the same location as front-line employees

Policies to Help Prevent Sexual Harassment

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the spotlight is shining bright on the magnitude of sexual harassment experienced by both women and men. Smart companies should stay ahead of the curve by training their workforce early and often on best practices in the workplace. The EEOC’s select taskforce on the study of harassment in the workplace has made recommendations for employers to ensure their anti-harassment policies provide adequate employee protections.

What are the elements of a good sexual harassment policy?

  1. A statement that harassment based on any protected characteristic will not be tolerated
  2. An easy to understand description of prohibited conduct, including examples
  3. Information on how employees who experience harassment, as well as those who observe harassment, can report it
  4. An assurance that there will be a thorough and impartial investigation
  5. A statement that any information gathered as part of an investigation will be kept confidential to the extent possible
  6. An assurance that the employer will take immediate and proportionate corrective action if it determines that harassment has occurred
  7. An assurance that reporting parties or a witness who provides information as part of a report will be protected from retaliation
  8. A statement that any employee who retaliates against an individual who submits a report, or provides information regarding a report, will be disciplined appropriately

All of these policy elements should be written in clear, simple words in all languages commonly used by the organization’s workforce

It’s good practice to offer sexual harassment training at least once a year for both employees and supervisors or managers, even if you are not legally required to do so. This way, managers will know what the law is and what to do, if and when an employee files a complaint. Regular training can also be invaluable should a lawsuit occur. In that situation, it can be important to be able to show that you took steps to try to prevent harassment.

Next Steps

For more help with identifying and understanding sexual harassment, your responsibilities, your organization’s responsibilities and compliance with federal law, enroll in Knowledge City’s online course on sexual harassment prevention in the workplace.

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