Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

June 29th, 2017 | By Jules Halpern Associates | Employee Handbook, Employment Law, Gender/ Sex, Harassment, Investigations

As seen in recent news, sexual harassment allegations seem to be a continuing issue for employers, despite their initiatives to prevent such claims. As discussed in another article in this month’s Newsletter, establishing a healthy work culture aids in avoiding harassment issues. However, there are other important ways an employer can prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Training

A 2016 study of sexual harassment in the workplace conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) determined that “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – its been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”

Sexual harassment training should be conducted every two years. It is not enough for an employer to conduct sexual harassment training once for new employees; the training should be reoccurring throughout an employee’s tenure. Further, the EEOC recommends that training be required for all employees at every level of the organization. By senior management attending sexual harassment training, it demonstrates their endorsement. The EEOC also suggests a live, interactive trainer who provides examples of harassment relating to the employer and its employees. The training should also include clear explanations of the consequences of sexual harassment and instructions on how managers can report harassment.

In addition, earlier this year, the EEOC provided guidance on how to prevent harassment and recommended that employees receive civility training, which the EEOC believes is a promising prevention method. Civility training is important because politeness extends to a respectful culture. 

Corporate Hotlines

Many organizations have hotlines where employees can report possible harassment issues that occurred in the workplace. Employees are reluctant to call these hotlines and therefore, they are often not heavily utilized. In the recent spate of harassment allegations at Fox News, according to Fox employees, many were unaware that the hotline existed. One former Fox News Anchor told The New York Times that “there was no hotline; I can’t underscore this enough” and that “when you have a real hotline, you put up posters…that did not exist.” The attorney representing clients who made allegations against Bill O’Reilly said that contacting the hotline “was like calling in a car insurance claim.” The calls made to the hotline ranged between 15 and 30 minutes long and some of this time was spent on hold. Further, the clients alleged that the individual taking the call was unaware of the significance of the call they were receiving.

Employers can take several steps to ensure hotlines are effective. Publicly traded companies are required by law to incorporate whistle-blower hotlines. Private-sector employers are not mandated by law to implement such hotlines. However, it is recommended that they do so in order to prevent sexual harassment and encourage employee reporting.

If an employer implements a hotline, it is imperative that they regularly inform their staff that the hotline exists and make it available during the employer’s hours of operation. The hotline service needs to be professional and useful and the operators should be properly trained. In addition, operators should take all employee complaints seriously and report them to the employer. Then, the employer should act immediately to resolve any complaints received. Notice via the hotline acts as notice to the employer, as though it was a direct complaint.

Handbook Policies  

A sexual harassment policy must be clearly detailed. The employer must provide definitions and the types of conduct that is prohibited. Without clear details, employees do not know the types of conduct that is forbidden in the workplace. For example, some employees often do not realize that simple jokes and teasing could offend others and such conduct has the potential to be the basis for sexual harassment allegations.

Further, the complaint procedures must be clearly defined by the employer. The employee may not report an incident without clear procedures. Failure to report an incident can escalate the problem and the employer is more likely to face sexual harassment accusations. Therefore, employers should have sincere policies that encourage reporting.

Moreover, the employer should designate a male and a female for employees to report claims. This is recommended because a female employee may not feel comfortable reporting to a male and vice versa. It is also recommended that employers encourage bystanders and witnesses to report incidents of sexual harassment. This will ensure that the issue is addressed, even if the alleged victim does not feel comfortable reporting. In addition, Employees do not report sexual harassment due to the fear of retaliation. Thus, it is important for the employer to communicate to its employees that they will not face consequences for coming forward.

A proper investigation needs to be conducted when a complaint is lodged and the employer must ensure that none of the complaints fall through the cracks. Failure to address complaints can result in more incidents in the future.

Improve the Workplace Culture

In order to preserve a professional workplace culture, employers need to create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated. Employers should also ensure all work-related activities that occur after hours are professional. Further, employers should ensure that upper-level employees understand where to draw the line with employees about jokes and similar behavior.

If the employer determines that the harassment occurred, it is advisable to take immediate action. Depending on the severity, various options should be considered including remedial training, discipline and even termination if necessary. Such action shows employees that the managers care about them and take allegations seriously, which in turn improves workplace culture.

Summary

We suggest that employers reevaluate their sexual harassment policies and training techniques to ensure that they are tailored towards sexual harassment prevention. Employers are encouraged to update training seminars and conduct them every two years in order to regularly train both existing and new employees. Further, it is recommended that employers consider implementing a hotline for employees to report incidents of sexual harassment. The hotlines need to be advertised and promoted to employees and the operators must be professional and effective. Finally, it is essential that the employer ensure that it has a healthy work culture. Implementing these recommendations will help employers avoid potential liability for claims of sexual harassment.

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

Comprehensive Workplace Advice and Representation
Jules Halpern Associates LLC
JULES HALPERN ASSOCIATES LLC is a boutique law firm committed to serving our clients in all facets of their workplace issues. We provide personalized, practical advice that resonates with our clients’ business objectives.
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