You can go a long way toward avoiding a potentially ruinous sexual harassment charge in your company by following these five steps:
- Establish a written policy that clarifies your position to everyone on staff. It also will provide solid proof to judges that you’re committed to eliminating and preventing sexual harassment. Make sure the language is clear, emphatic and easy to understand. What should be included? A broad definition of the type of conduct that constitutes sexual harassment, a statement requiring employees to report offensive conduct, procedures for reporting a complaint, discipline procedures and a pledge that there will be no retaliation against whistle-blowers. What should not be included? Guarantees of confidentiality, strict limits on what constitutes harassment and promises to resolve complaints to the victim’s satisfaction.
- Promote your policy. It’s not enough to have a policy on file. In order for your company to avoid liability, your employees must know that your policy exists and understand the grievance procedures. Hold in-house meetings to communicate your policy. Many experts also advise you to have employees sign a statement saying they’ve read, understood and intend to comply with the policy. Keep the training ongoing so that your staff—especially new hires—will be aware of the guidelines.
- Set up a complaint procedure. Provide the names and telephone numbers of at least two contact people to whom workers can report misconduct. (If you have only one contact, it would be difficult for someone harassed by that person to file a complaint.) Set a time frame to process and resolve complaints, and decide how appeals will be handled.
- Enforce your policy consistently. One of the most common traps for employers is to enforce their policy differently depending on the parties involved. You can avoid a lawsuit by basing your discipline on the seriousness of the offense, without regard to rank or seniority. Make sure you have any necessary documentation to back up disciplinary action.
- Investigate complaints ASAP. Take every complaint seriously and investigate it promptly. Develop a method to interview the accused, the accuser and potential witnesses. Your first goal should be to resolve the grievance internally, without judicial or EEOC interference. The best way to do that is to have an effective complaint procedure.
Sample Sexual Harassment policy
You may use the model policy below or adapt it for your organization. The statement should appear on company letterhead, signed by the CEO or another high-level executive.
Sexual Harassment Policy
[Name of company] is pledged to preserving a working environment free from sexual harassment. Harassment is against the law and is a form of gender discrimination. [Name of company] does not tolerate discrimination on the basis of gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, national origin, citizenship, veteran status, disability or any other personal characteristic unrelated to an employee’s ability to perform work requirements. The aim of this policy is to prevent harassment of any kind by anyone employed by or associated with the company.
Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or unwanted sexual attention by anyone associated with the company, whether male or female. Harassment may include references to employment status or conditions, or may serve to create a hostile, intimidating or uncomfortable work environment. Harassment includes, but is not limited to, obscene jokes, lewd comments, sexual depictions, repeated requests for dates, touching, staring or other sexual conduct committed either on or off company premises.
Victims of sexual harassment have the right to sue both the company and the perpetrator by contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state agency. For this reason and for the protection of all our employees, [name of company] seeks to prevent sexual harassment.
All [name of company] employees are responsible for helping ensure that our workplace is kept free of sexual harassment. If you feel you have been a victim of sexual harassment, report the behavior to our Sexual Harassment Coordinators [name, location, phone number] or to any supervisor, member of the personnel department or the company president. If you have witnessed sexual harassment, you also are urged to report the incident so that prompt action may be taken.
All complaints will be treated seriously, kept as confidential as possible and investigated fully. [Name of company] expressly forbids any retaliation against employees for reporting sexual harassment. If, however, the company finds that false charges have been filed, disciplinary action may be taken against any individual who provides false information.
If an investigation confirms that sexual harassment has occurred, immediate action will be taken to put an end to the harassment. [Name of company] will take appropriate corrective actions against anyone found to be in violation of this policy, including possible termination of employment.
Adapted from a book, Sexual Harassment: A Concise, Practical Reference Tool for Small Business (publication N265A), published by the National Institute of Business Management. To order, call (800) 543-2051.