High profile people in many industries have recently come under scrutiny and attack for allowing or perpetrating sexual harassment and assault. A review of what sexual harassment is, how to manage it in your workplace and supervisory training are keys to keeping you and your company out of harm’s way.
Sexual harassment and the creation of a “hostile work environment,” are forbidden by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Act is overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which has published guidelines which state that harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of Title VII. Locally, the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission is the contracting agency performing the investigation of sexual harassment complaints. Not each and every “sexual” conduct in the workplace is actionable. The conduct in question must be pervasive to the point it alters the conditions of the victim’s employment and creates an “abusive” environment. A company policy that prohibits discrimination and contains an “open door” procedure may not help preclude employer liability if the policy fails to specifically address sexual harassment or if procedure requires the victim to go to their supervisor (who may be the harasser). Courts routinely agree with EEOC guidelines and regularly assert that prevention is the best tool for the elimination of sexual harassment.
Prudent employers seeking to minimize their exposure to sexual harassment liability must take the following steps:
A procedure for reviewing and investigating complaints should be included in a specific policy designed for the “intake” of sexual harassment complaints. This procedure must allow the complaining employee to bypass their immediate supervisor and designate one person to receive and document the complaints. These parties should be perceived as trustworthy, trained in EEOC matters and be a good potential witness in the event of future litigation. An assurance of confidentiality should be given, subject only to such disclosure as is necessary to conduct a review of the investigation. The purpose of the investigation is not to uncover truth/guilt as much as it is to end illegal activity.
Such internal investigatory information should be shared only with persons who have a “need to know” or who are believed to have knowledge which could confirm or disprove the allegations. You must ask the alleged victim who can substantiate their claim and not accuse the alleged harasser, but ask who can support/establish their innocence.
After the investigation, immediate corrective action must be taken to remedy the harassment. Any offender should receive corrective action commensurate with the extent of the policy violation and the victim should be advised of the action taken.
Finally, supervisors must be trained to understand what sexual harassment is and advised it is their responsibility to guard against circumstances which could give rise to a complaint. Moreover, managers must be made aware that their participation in or failure to respond to such conduct could cost them their jobs.
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination which has an agency to investigate it and a court system to intervene if warranted. Learn which it is and take immediate steps to prevent it in your workplace.