Sexual harassment has been a serious consideration in workplaces around the nation for a number of years, but the #MeToo movement brought it into the forefront of the human resources agenda. Creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming atmosphere should be a priority at any company, and in any industry. Here are tips for taking a proactive approach to sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as best practices for ensuring compliance with sexual harassment law.
Taking a proactive approach
As the proverb goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of regret.” This applies to many situations in life, sexual harassment included. One of the most effective ways to prevent issues from arising in the first place is to require ongoing training by employees, managers and human resources staff. But not all training is the same.
Sexual harassment training is thought to be most effective when it’s done in an intentional and employer-specific manner. It’s not federally required, so oftentimes, sexual harassment training is done as a “check the box” activity. If it’s conducted in a way that’s too obvious and not nuanced enough to absolve gray areas, situations are still likely to arise as a result of real-life misunderstandings or actions that can lead to complaints. For example, most working adults do not need clarification on the fact that groping a colleague is not only illegal, but also likely very upsetting to the victim. A more realistic scenario might involve an employee who openly shares explicit details about their dating life and/or encourages others to do the same, or who always seems to find a reason to linger around a certain co-worker, making the individual uncomfortable.
One situation that tends to arise often in employment settings is the issue of romantic relationships involving employees. While it may seem inevitable that employees end up dating each other, especially in industries where they spend many hours working together (such as health care), this situation is also ripe for sexual harassment and retaliation claims if or when things end. For this reason, many workplaces have strict “no dating” policies, which may require additional specifications pertinent to a particular industry (e.g., health care workers dating patients). It’s usually understood that a manager cannot have a romantic relationship with someone who directly reports to them. But the water gets murkier when it comes to situations involving co-workers or those in different departments. As a result of the commonplace nature of this situation, it’s in an employer’s best interest to have a specific policy on romantic relationships between co-workers, and for the human resources department to maintain an open-door policy regarding discussions.
Social media use often makes sexual harassment situations even more complicated, because it can create a subtext for behaviors that occur during the work day. Employees may feel uncomfortable pressure to “add” co-workers on social media, especially if a boss or manager extends an invite. This blurring of the line between work and personal life can feel like an unwanted intrusion, and it might be distressing for employees to know that their colleagues or managers are viewing what would under normal circumstances be personal posts. For this reason, HR experts recommend explicitly discussing social media use as part of sexual harassment training.
When designing training sessions, it’s recommended that HR staff take into consideration the goals of conducting training. Ultimately, the goal in any workplace is to keep employees feeling safe and comfortable, which requires early intervention on perceived issues and a zero tolerance policy for continued harassment. The gravity of sexual harassment transgressions should be emphasized, with examples of consequences in the workplace and greater legal system.
The U.S. government began recognizing sexual harassment as a form of discrimination based on “sex,” in the 1980s, per a formal interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because each state has its own laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s critical for HR staff to understand which regulations apply to their company. This can be made even more challenging if employees frequently travel between states to work in other offices or with new clients, as their behaviors might be perceived differently under the law in another region.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lists a number of ways in which sexual harassment can occur. First of all, the victim(s) and harasser(s) may be a man/men or woman/women. Sexual harassment does not necessarily always involve someone from the opposite sex. The management status of the harasser is also not taken into account in determining if sexual harassment has occurred. Theoretically, sexual harassment could involve anyone from a supervisor to client to a co-worker, facility staff, etc. The victim does not necessarily need to sustain “economic injury or discharge” to be deemed affected by the behavior; it simply must be unwelcome and unlawful. Finally, the victim doesn’t even need to be the actual person harassed, but could be anyone affected even peripherally by offensive conduct.
Enforcing employer sexual harassment policies should ideally be something that is done on principal, for ethical reasons, but also with the law in mind. A happy workforce is a productive workforce, and employees can’t be expected to do their best work if they’re facing unwanted pressure or romantic attention from those around them. The best policy is that of zero tolerance. It might seem challenging to interpret sexual harassment law in some cases, so prevention still outweighs enforcement as far as keeping unwanted behavior at bay. However, if sexual harassment does occur, human resources staff have a legal and ethical obligation to respond quickly, fairly and in compliance with state and federal laws.
Ultimately, sexual harassment in the workplace creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. However, with a focus on preventative measures as well as consistent enforcement, it is most often manageable by a company’s human resources department.