An employer has a legal obligation to protect employees from becoming victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. The legal and moral issues can be murky but the solution is not; preventing sexual harassment is preferable to dealing with its presence.
It is in the best interest of the employer to know what the legal obligations are as well as what other steps are recommended for preventing offenses. A charge of sexual harassment will harm more than the victim – it will create a tense environment among all employees by affecting group morale.
WHAT CAN AN EMPLOYER DO TO PREVENT SEXUAL HARASSMENT?
Learning about the legal definitions of sexual harassment and implementing a clear policy about what is considered sexual harassment and how it will be dealt with is the first step to preventing it.
Staying aware of conditions in the workplace and getting feedback from employees will help in creating effective policies. That means ensuring that pornographic pictures are not permitted, sexually explicit comments and jokes are not told and guidelines about what is considered sexual harassment are posted.
Managers and employees should receive periodic training about what constitutes sexual harassment and what procedure should be followed if an individual needs to file a complaint. It should be clear to all employees that sexual harassment is a serious charge and that serious repercussions (including firing) will be administered against violators.
Dealing with complaints quickly and responsively is important. Let your employees know they have a right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment.
WHAT ARE THE LEGAL ISSUES?
The legal definitions and stipulations about sexual harassment in the workplace are listed on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website at www.eeoc.gov.
Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, requests, words and actions that affect the employment or work performance of the victim or creates an intimidating or offensive work environment.
The circumstances under which sexual harassment charges can be filed include (but is not limited to) the following:
“In cases of sexual harassment, the victim as well as the harasser may be male or female. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or firing of the victim.” (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Facts About Sexual Harassment, ” 1997)
Each case must be dealt with on an individual basis and no form of retaliation can be made against the employee who reports sexual harassment.
While you may or may not be legally required to train your managers and employees about sexual harassment, it is in the best interest of everyone to do so.
State laws may differ but offering education will make the issues clear to employees and teach managers how to handle complaints. If a lawsuit is made the employer can provide proof that steps were taken to prevent sexual harassment and educate employees.
HOW SHOULD CHARGES OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT BE DEALT WITH?
Employers should take charges seriously, creating an investigation quickly, and dealing with violators appropriately. The company policy about sexual harassment should be created in advance so that managers know the appropriate action to take if complaints are filed.
If the situation is not dealt with quickly the employee may take the issue to the EEOC or local agencies that enforce these laws. Having a record of your policies and the actions taken will be considered in such an event.