It will surely go down as one of the biggest news stories of the year. From the world of entertainment to Capitol Hill, allegations of sexual harassment have disrupted the status quo and made headlines at a remarkable rate. Meanwhile, on social media, the #MeToo movement has sparked widespread discussion.
Employers can play an important role in leveraging the momentum of this historic effort to end sexual harassment. Although you cannot and should not try to completely control employees’ behavior, you do have the power to establish a workplace culture that discourages wrongdoing and helps every employee feel safe.
Recognize the problem
The first step in solving any problem, of course, is recognizing it. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the law “does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.” Where such behavior goes too far is “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim being fired or demoted.”
A harasser can be anyone within an organization, not just a supervisor. Even a client, customer, or constituent can fit the definition, though the victim would have to show that certain conditions were present. That is, from a legal liability standpoint, generally there would have to be evidence the employer knew about the behavior and did nothing to stop it and that the victim had no way to avoid contact with the offender.
The EEOC also suggests, “It is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop.” This reduces the chance that a simple misunderstanding has become overblown.
Take steps to prevent it
All that said, employers cannot expect employees to work out every such conflict on their own. Here are a few steps you might take to create a safe culture that discourages bad behavior and encourages openness in immediately dealing with questionable incidents:
- Conduct periodic ‘climate surveys’ to assess the extent to which harassment may be occurring.
- Implement a method to measure how effective supervisors are in preventing and responding to harassment, including it in their performance reviews.
- Conduct regular and various harassment prevention training sessions with topics such as ‘workplace civility’ and ‘bystander intervention.’
- Partner with researchers to benchmark your organization’s workplace harassment prevention efforts with those of similar entities.
Remember, sexual harassment is not just a problem for the victim and perpetrator. It can have negative effects on morale and productivity throughout the organization and severely damage your reputation.
Keep an eye out
No employer is immune from the possibility of sexual harassment occurring within its four walls. Therefore, it is prudent to regularly take a fresh look at your policies and procedures in this area to be confident they are robust enough to minimize the probability of any problem behavior. Contact our firm for more ideas and information.