allegations against men of power in the arts, entertainment and political
realms – and the rise of the #MeToo movement in response – have focused the
nation’s attention on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many working women like myself are finding
that few if any in our circle of friends and colleagues have not had some form
of unwanted advance from a man at work.
Lest you think this is not
happening in your organization, consider that surveys show that as many as 88 percent of women say that they have been
subjected to some form of sexual harassment, so the odds are good that it has happened
or could happen in your workplace.
At the same time, the
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that a quarter of
respondents had a consensual romance with a boss or colleague at work, and that
15 percent of married couples met at work. So if you are trying to grapple with
what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, you’re not alone. Here are some key things for you to consider:
harassment is not always obvious and can be difficult to detect.
1. The government has a broad definition for
what can constitute sexual harassment.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors,
and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual
harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's
employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or
creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
2. It doesn’t matter what
a person’s intentions are; what counts is how the person’s actions or comments
are perceived. This point is clearly
lost on many of the high-profile men who have recently been accused of
harassment – their public statements all seem to include some form of the
sentiment: “I never intended to make [the subject] uncomfortable.” But the law does not concern itself with the
intention of the harasser; rather, it is concerned with how those actions are
perceived by the recipient.
3. The person filing the complaint doesn’t have
to be the one directly harassed; it can be anyone affected by the offensive
conduct. Conversely, the person who did
the harassing doesn’t have to be an employee; it can be a client, vendor, or
other third party.
4. Business owners can be held liable for
supervisors’ actions, even if those actions violated company policy. Critical to this point is how the employer
investigated and addressed the harassment or whether the employer created an
environment whereby an individual would feel comfortable reporting an incident
of sexual harassment.
employers should do to protect themselves and their employees.
Fortunately, there are
relatively simple steps you can take to protect your employees and your
Policy – You should have
a well-written, zero-tolerance policy and detailed complaint procedure in your
employee handbook. It should define what constitutes sexual harassment, the
process for reporting incidents of harassment, the possible consequences for
violations of the policy, and a clear statement that the company complies with
all federal, state and local laws relating to harassment and discrimination of all
kinds. If you do not have a policy or
have not reviewed it in recent years, now is the time to create one or dust off
the old one and give it a solid review.
And, in light of recent events, having everyone review and sign off on
the policy again, even if no changes are made, isn’t a bad idea either.
Policy – You may also want to consider a policy dealing with
workplace romance. Such policies often
require that both parties sign a statement that the relationship is consensual
and that they release the employer from any liability that is the result of the
relationship. The policy should also strictly prohibit relationships between a manager/supervisor
and a direct report and should specify what behaviors are appropriate and
inappropriate at work.
communicate your policies and your commitment to a harassment-free workplace on
a regular basis. Seeing that leaders of
the organization take this issue seriously will ensure employees will feel safe
to report instances and will go a long way to showing your good-faith effort to
keeping all employees safe.
employees and supervisors on what harassment is, how to avoid it, and how to
file a complaint. While training is not
a legal requirement in most states, courts and the EEOC agree that meaningful,
interactive training carries significant weight in determining to what extent a
company attempted to protect its employees from harassment. Our best advice is to train every year or two
years so that employees keep the information fresh in their minds and
understand how seriously you take issue of workplace harassment.
active in the management of employees and monitor their behaviors and actions.
One of the biggest mistakes managers make is in assuming harassment and
demeaning behavior is not happening.
Given what we’re witnessing now, it is quite likely that harassment is
occurring in some way, shape or form.
Managers need to know how to spot possible situations and how to handle
them. And don’t assume harassment is only toward women – the law is
gender-neutral, and almost 17 percent of claims filed in 2016 were filed by
These truly feel like
extraordinary times, with each day bringing news of another beloved actor or TV
personality or respected politician losing his job due to inappropriate
behavior. Yet, as depressing as this is,
it also gives us all the opportunity to look within ourselves and our companies
to ensure we are doing all that we can to protect our employees from inappropriate
and illegal behavior. That can only be a
By Claudia St. John, SPHR,
SHRM-SCP, President – Affinity HR Group, Inc.