Your workplace is one big, happy family, right? You work and play together; you joke around; it’s all in good fun. Well, it is until it isn’t; until an EEOC complaint lands on your desk.
Each new day seems to bring new revelations about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. This great unmasking only underscores how crucial it is for employers to have comprehensive policies and staff training on identifying and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and on appropriately and thoroughly responding to employee complaints when they arise. Not only is having good policies and complaint procedures in place a good idea from an ethical and moral standpoint, but also having robust anti-harassment policies, and implementing those policies consistently, can shield an employer from legal liability for the misdeeds of a rogue employee. Employers should consider several components when creating and implementing sexual harassment policies and procedures:
1. The people at the top must fully commit to anti-harassment efforts, including comprehensive (but comprehendible) policies and regular staff training.
• The buck stops with the boss. If the boss doesn’t take his or her company’s sexual harassment policies and procedures seriously, this could leave the company exposed to potential liability. For larger employers who have the resources, it is a good idea to designate and train a specific management-level employee to oversee and implement the company’s sexual harassment policies and procedures. For all employers, regardless of size, however, it should be made clear to employees they can approach any management-level employee with a complaint, and that it will be directed to the appropriate person and taken seriously.
• Employers can (and should) actively promote a harassment-free culture by, for example, recognizing employees, supervisors and managers for their efforts in promptly reporting, investigating and resolving employee complaints of harassment. Employers might also consider testing the effectiveness of their policies and procedures by conducting anonymous employee surveys.
2. An anti-harassment policy should be easy for the average employee to understand. It should be distributed to all employees upon hire, and the employer should obtain from each employee a signed acknowledgment the employee has received and read the policy.
• It should clearly state the policy applies to all employees. It should include a description, with examples, of prohibited conduct. Bear in mind that employers are always free to prohibit a broader range of conduct than what is covered by anti-discrimination laws.
• The policy should also contain a clear description of the complaint procedure, and should encourage employees to bring any unwelcome conduct to the attention of the employer, even if the employee is unsure about whether the conduct violates the employer’s anti-harassment policy.
• Finally, the policy should make clear that retaliation for bringing a complaint to the employer will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
3. An effective complaint procedure should allow employees to make complaints orally or in writing, on their own behalf or on behalf of another. Additionally, the complaint procedure should include:
• 1) a statement that the complaining employee is never required to bring her complaint to the alleged harasser, but instead may approach any management level employee with whom the complaining employee feels comfortable;
• 2) a statement that the company will promptly, objectively and thoroughly investigate all employee complaints of harassment;
• 3) a statement that the company will maintain the privacy of everyone involved in a sexual harassment investigation to the greatest extent possible, with some acknowledgment that complete anonymity is rarely feasible;
• 4) a statement that the results of the investigation will be conveyed to all parties upon completion, and that corrective action (up to and including termination, in accordance with the employer’s discipline policy) will be taken where appropriate. It is critically important that employers apply their policies and procedures consistently regardless of who complains and about whom they complain.
• Finally, document, document, document! Employers should always take written notes of every complaint, and from all witness interviews, and create a final, written summary of the investigation, the conclusion reached, and the corrective action taken, if any. It should also be made clear the company will keep all such documents confidential, and disclose them on a need-to-know basis only.
4. It is one thing for an employee to sign a piece of paper saying they have read the employer’s anti-harassment policy. It is another for the employee to actually take it to heart. Again, employees won’t take it seriously if management doesn’t do so. Training and enforcement send a message – management is serious about a harassment-free workplace.
• Staff training programs should be dynamic and interactive, provided by qualified HR personnel or employment attorneys, and tailored to the particular workplace.
• Any training program should provide concrete examples of what the employer considers inappropriate.
• It should encourage employees to report inappropriate behavior, and explain how to do so and what happens when a complaint is made.
• Employee training should also include a discussion of the repercussions for harassment, and a description of the employer’s discipline policy.
• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, because supervisors and managers have additional responsibilities under the law, it is a good idea to offer additional training to supervisors and managers on how to identify, report, and correct harassment, as well as how to protect complaining employees from retaliation.
Article Written By: Ariel