Many companies don't think they need a sexual harassment policy – maybe their office is too small, or it's an all-male or all-female office, or simply “something like that would never happen here.”
As with any company policy, it's better to be safe than sorry. Sexual harassment can happen at any office, to any employee. In fact, reports show that one in five women has been sexually harassed by a boss, and one in four has been harassed by a coworker. Furthermore,same-sex harassment cases continue to climb at a rapid rate.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers with 15 or more employees can be sued for sexual harassment. While smaller companies are exempt from federal law, they may fall under their state's discrimination statutes. Therefore, developing a sexual harassment policy is critical to promote the welfare of your employees.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which oversees sexual harassment cases under Title VII, recommends that every company create a policy around the following elements:
- A clear explanation of prohibited conduct – The policy should broadly define any instances of behavior that could be considered harassment, including touching, requests for sexual favors, and any other conduct of a sexual nature. If the behavior is unwelcome and creates a hostile work environment, it is considered harassment.
- Assurance that employees who make claims of harassment or provide information related to such claims will be protected against retaliation – An employee may not be demoted, terminated or denied employment benefits for reporting any instance of sexual harassment. Last year, more than 37,000 retaliation claims were filed with the EEOC.
- A clearly described complaint process that provides accessible avenues for complainants – Victims of harassment need to know exactly what steps to take to report the issue and which individuals in the company are authorized to respond to harassment complaints, especially if the employee has been harassed by a manager or supervisor.
- Assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of the individuals bringing harassment claims to the extent possible – An employee filing a report is already feeling vulnerable and embarrassed. Ensuring his or her privacy is protected is critical to defending the employee against retaliation from the harasser or fellow coworkers.
- A complaint process that provides a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation – To begin putting corrective actions in place and reduce further incidents of harassment in the company, any reports of harassment should be handled as quickly as possible.
- Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate correction action when it determines that harassment has occurred – You must follow the appropriate steps to remedy the situation, and if needed, deliver sanctions to the harasser, whether than means a suspension, training or termination.
As in-depth as your new sexual harassment policy may be, it's just the first phase. In order to get everyone on board, awareness training for both supervisors and employees must be instituted to guide them through the policy. All employees, regardless of their positions, are entitled to work in an environment free from harassment, and an effective policy will assist your staff to protect themselves, their fellow coworkers and your business.