“We never thought it will happen in our organization.” “There’s no way Joe did that!” “This has to be a mistake.”
Sexual harassment, hostile work environment. It is a reality that many business owners have to face. But many, don’t believe it happened and are annoyed that they have to spend time investigating it. Some are afraid it is true and now they will have to fire someone.
What is sexual harassment? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. (Click here to learn more: http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm)
Companies are obligated to provide an environment that is free from harassment. Having steps in place that educate your workforce before harassment happens is essential to preventing this activity. Once harassment has been reported, immediately investigating what happened is crucial.
Here are some steps that can help you prevent sexual harassment in your company:
How can your company help prevent sexual harassment claims?
- Have a written sexual harassment policy.
- Provide sexual harassment training to your employees and management staff at least once a year.
- Stop any behavior that might be construed as harassment immediately. If a management person walks by two employees having an inappropriate conversation, they should tell them to stop immediately.
What are the basic steps in handling a sexual harassment claim?
- Once harassment has been reported or observed to a member of the management team, the manager should report it to the human resources department. In small businesses, the owner should contact an HR consultant or the company attorney.
- A confidential investigation should commence immediately.
- The employee claiming harassment should be assured they will not be retaliated against and he/she should immediately report anything he/she feels is retaliation. Letting the employee go through the story of what happened without interruption helps get their perspective. Once they have told their story, ask clarifying questions. Ask open-ended questions.
- B. Talk to any witnesses. Do not lead them by asking “Did you see what happened in the break area at 3PM last Tuesday?” Instead ask them if they attended the company sexual harassment training, if they can define sexual harassment/hostile work environment, and if they have ever witnessed or have knowledge of sexual harassment/hostile work environment. Again, let them tell their story and then ask open-ended questions that will help clarify what they saw.
- Interview the person who is accused of sexual harassment. Ask them the same questions as in 2.B. If they say they are unaware of any incident, start asking questions that will help them remember the incident.
- Once all parties have been interviewed, begin piecing the story together to determine what happened.
- Make a determination as to what needs to happen next. If sexual harassment occurred, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone will be terminated. Actions that can be taken if sexual harassment occurred includes: verbal warning, written warning, final written warning, suspension, and termination. There are many considerations that go into determining the appropriate disciplinary action including your company’s discipline policy, precedent setting decisions, the egregiousness of the action, etc. All decisions should be documented.
- Follow up periodically with the employee claiming sexual harassment to ensure no retaliation or further harassment has occurred. Document all follow up conversations.
- All investigation notes and documentation should be kept separate from personnel files.
- Consider additional training to employees and/or supervisors as appropriate.
Stopping sexual harassment before it starts, is the best approach. However, once sexual harassment is reported, swift action must be taken to protect the company.
This article is provided as general information only and does not constitute and is not a substitute for legal or other professional advice. We advise you seek advice from your attorney before implementing any employment policy for your business.