With the recent slew of high-profile allegations, confessions, and convictions for sexual and workplace harassment, anti-harassment policies have become a “hot button” issue for many companies. To protect your organization, now is a great time to update your harassment policies and procedures. But where do you start?
First, we should define the issue at hand. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a great deal of information regarding sexual harassment. There are two kinds of sexual harassment often seen in the workplace. Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment is defined as any “unwelcome sexual conduct that is either an implicit or explicit condition of employment.” Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment is defined as any “unwelcome sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes (on purpose or in effect) with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” In addition to unwanted sexual attention, discriminating against employees on the basis of gender is considered sexual harassment as well.
Most people recognize that the first type of sexual harassment is wrong, and most would agree that such behavior is harmful both to the victim and to the company. However, many people would also be reluctant to classify an atmosphere as harassment. Individuals often don’t understand the damaging effects of a hostile environment. What one person considers to be “locker room talk,” another considers to be verbal intimidation. One employee might find a joke merely risqué, while a coworker takes great offense. What some people think of as a casual and politically-incorrect office culture, other employees experience as a toxic and openly hostile work environment.
Only a lawyer experienced with sexual harassment legislation and case law can give a good explanation for where to draw the line, but laypeople should rely on the word “unreasonable.” You might have noticed that the second type of sexual harassment seems quite similar to office bullying. Both situations create a hostile work environment. Both situations marginalize the victim and rely on the complicity of onlookers. Both situations can result in expensive lawsuits for a company. Here are a few steps you can take to update your anti-harassment policies.
1. Start from the top.
If you want your employees to take the anti-harassment policies seriously, they must see that the executives and managers take these policies seriously. Your staff looks to leadership for guidance and those leaders should be held to the same standard, or higher, than their employees. No one can be exempt for training or immune from enforcement.
2. Go beyond the legal minimum.
If your company prides itself on exceeding standards in safety, customer service, or other industry requirements, why not continue that trend with protecting your employees? As previously noted, your company’s anti-harassment policies should not be limited to sexual harassment. All types of workplace harassment should be forbidden. Consider implementing a Respectful Workplace program that provides policy for all government-protected or state-protected classes.
3. Get feedback from employees.
Consult with employees as you develop your new policies. This will also help you better understand any specific problems. Once your corporate policies have been established, it is important that you provide regular reviews of compliance and maintain an “open door” policy. Hold informal discussions with employees to determine if your training is on the right track. Consider an annual workplace harassment refresher training that all employees complete. Safeguards like this can go a long way in creating and maintaining a comfortable workplace.
4. Implement confidential processes for reporting.
Many victims and witnesses of sexual harassment do not report what they experience for fear of retaliation. Many employees feel more comfortable submitting reports anonymously so be sure the reporting and investigative process is communicated clearly It is also worth considering implementing a board of investigators. This board functions as an impartial panel that reviews incidents and helps drive any changes to corporate policies Ultimately, it is wise to seek legal counsel when developing your policies and be sure to make certain that all incident reporting is confidential!
5. Educate with the goal of understanding.
Many people have professed shock at how many women (and men) have experienced harassment at work; likewise, many are surprised at the prevalence of workplace bullying. Even victims of harassment and bullying might not realize that these problems are so pervasive. When you train your employees on the new anti-harassment policies, it is vital that your workers understand how, and why harassment, will negatively affect them.
Tackling an issue like harassment is vital to the successful operations of a company. Beyond the goodwill it creates, it’s just good business. CoreAxis can help your company create a custom training program on a respectful workplace and deliver targeted anti-harassment training materials.