Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, but that doesn’t keep it from happening. It can creep into our workplaces, making workers uncomfortable and taking the focus off business. While your legal obligations may be covered by a policy and required training, there are additional steps you can take to prevent sexual harassment.
Each year, roughly 7,000 sexual harassment charges are filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Add in another 3,000 – 4,000 charges with state and local Fair Employment Practices agencies. Then consider that three out of four employees who are harassed at work don’t even speak up about it …. It’s clear that while sexual harassment is declining slightly, it still has far to go.
Most organizations provide sexual harassment training and have policies in place to help prevent it. But face it, if a new employee starts a job where sexually inappropriate jokes and comments are just part of the culture, it’s hard to speak up. We all want to get along with our co-workers—after all, we’ll be seeing them at least 40 hours a week. And if you do speak up, even in confidence to HR, won’t it be obvious that you’re the one who reported the behavior?
If the sexual harassment happens in a one-on-one setting with a boss, the employee might fear retaliation. Will anyone believe her if she speaks up? (After all, she’s new and her boss may have been there for years.) She may worry about losing her job, getting assigned to lower-quality projects or having a strained relationship with that boss—all bad scenarios.
Your organization’s policies and training may be a good start to keeping you out of legal hot water; but are they enough to keep sexual harassment from happening? Is there more you could do to ensure that someone who’s being harassed feels comfortable speaking up or encourage them to speak directly with the harasser?
“To win a lawsuit, courts require proof that harassment was severe and pervasive,” reports penelopetrunk.com. So, while minor harassment might not cost your company in dollars, it could cost you in lost productivity and talent—as great employees simply leave rather than confront or report the harassment.
What additional things can you do to ensure a sexual harassment-free culture?
- Send out regular, confidential surveys to all employees, suggests hbr.org. Intolerance for sexual harassment starts with top leadership. Keeping your finger on the pulse in an anonymous way can help ensure that workers understand they have another way to be heard. It also serves as a reminder to a would-be harasser that the organization is keeping close tabs.
- Monitor email for harassing content, suggests blr.com. Stop any inappropriate behavior or communication.
- Make sure managers and supervisors are aware of and maintain a zero-tolerance work environment
- Teach employees what to do if they witness sexual harassment, even if it’s not directed at them. For many people, it’s easier to speak up on behalf of someone else. Educate your employees to notice when someone’s behavior is making another employee uncomfortable and empower them to say “cool it.” Further encourage them to report the behavior if simply addressing it with the harasser doesn’t seem to work.
- Investigate claims immediately. If an employee alleges sexual harassment, separate the employees (making sure that the separation isn’t a step down for the accuser—which could be perceived as retaliation for speaking up). Interview everyone involved in a neutral way, documenting timelines and quoting individuals. Make a decision on what to do and do it with careful guidance from your attorney.
Creating a workplace that’s free of sexual harassment is smart business. But it might mean you have to go beyond simply training employees and creating a policy. Consider things you can do to monitor, teach and investigate that will keep sexual harassment from creeping in.