Over the course of the past year, there has been a notable spike in media reporting of sexual harassment in the workplace. The headlines report allegations of harassment and other misconduct from individuals ranging from politicians to members of the media, from business leaders to Hollywood producers and actors. The litany of media reports invigorated the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and has put workplace harassment at the front and center of our national conversation. You should be assured that your employees are listening.
Despite the pervasive amount of reporting on the subject, sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC have not surged – at least not yet. Nevertheless, with allegations arising so publicly, and with such regularity, now is the time for employers to evaluate the controls they have in place to address and resolve sexual harassment in the workplace.
We’ll start with the nuts and bolts – ensuring you have a current and effective policy in place. In a future post, we’ll discuss communicating and training your employees to ensure their understanding of, and compliance with, your policy.
The EEOC holds that prevention is the best tool for eliminating workplace harassment. Prevention starts with a formalized, written, and distributed policy that defines sexual harassment. If you already have a sexual harassment policy in your handbook, now is the time to revisit and revise it. For example, does your current policy address discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation? Based on recent court decisions, it should.
The EEOC has set out six core elements of an effective sexual harassment policy.  At a minimum, your policy should include:
- A clear explanation of prohibited conduct;
- Assurance that employees who make complaints of harassment or provide information related to such complaints will be protected against retaliation;
- A clearly described complaint process that provides accessible avenues for complainants;
- Assurance that employer will protect the confidentiality of the individuals bringing harassment complaints to the extent possible;
- A complaint process that provides a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation; and
- Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate corrective action when it determines that harassment has occurred.
Your policy should clearly define sexual harassment in a way that is easy to understand. For example, the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment is very straightforward, defining it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Further, your policy should address specific examples of what constitutes unlawful harassment. It is critical that the policy establish and communicate the boundaries.
After setting out the confines of permissible and non-permissible conduct, the policy should contain a detailed complaint procedure that informs employees of the process for reporting complaints to management, Human Resources, or more senior management. Employees must be assured that there is a process in place to investigate and address their complaints, in a confidential manner. And laying out the potential disciplinary consequences for employees found to violate the policy will underscore that your company takes sexual harassment seriously. Finally, the policy must clearly inform employees that they will not be retaliated against for lodging a good faith complaint under the policy, or exercising any other rights protected by law.
When it’s all said and done, your company’s best means of preventing workplace harassment starts with a strong, clearly-worded policy prohibiting workplace harassment. Following the guidelines set forth above will put you on the path to prevention.
Coming Next Week: Effective Workplace Sexual Harassment Training.
Image Credit: From Pixabay, Creative Commons license, free for commercial use.
 Prior to the dissemination of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Policy, you should consult with an attorney to ensure that the policy is compliant with any additional requirements under state or local law.