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January 17, 2018

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This article in its entirety initially appeared in the December 2017 edition of the HR Advisor newsletter. We are sharing an edited version on the Workforce Go! website, with permission from the author. Edits by Julie Downey, Workforce Go!
Nearly 27,000 charges of sexual harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016. This number doesn’t include those filed with state and local agencies or situations in which employees took their cases directly to an attorney. It also does not include the many incidents that are never reported. Victims of and witnesses to sexual harassment in the workplace often refrain from reporting because the perpetrator is in a position of power protective measures to prevent retaliation are not in place. In other cases, victims report the harassment, but the behavior is excused, and the complaints are rebuffed. Word spreads that the organization tolerates harassment, so people cease reporting it to supervisors and human resources. Employees either keep quiet, file charges with a governmental agency, or seek out an attorney.
These outcomes create a dangerous workplace culture, and are detrimental to morale. If litigation ensues, harassment can cost employers hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions even, if harassment is pervasive. And when harassment continues unabated, victims suffer physically and psychologically, and negatively impact their careers—and personal life. Needless to say, everyone should feel safe and secure in a workplace, and it’s the employer’s responsibility to make it that way. While we cannot prevent all harassment, employers can and should do everything in their power to prevent staff from inflicting this harm on each other, and appropriately respond when it occurs.
Employers need to take a cue from the #MeToo movement, which was started in 2017 by victims of sexual harassment or abuse who were no longer willing to be silent about their stories. In a time when even powerful celebrities are even losing their jobs for this type of unacceptable behavior, the need for workplaces to adopt a zero tolerance policy is urgent. Americans have spoken. The message is clear. No one is exempt from punishment—and everyone deserves protection.
What are some steps employers can take?
Train employees about what constitutes sexual harassment.Teach employees how to respond when it happens to them or they witness it.Establish multiple options for reporting.Investigate allegations promptly and thoroughlyTake appropriate steps to discipline violators.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends these additional preventive measures:
Make an organizational commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respect—and establish policies and procedures to hold people accountable to that commitment.Empower those who are responsible for responding to allegations of harassment and preventing harassment from occurring.Establish a sense of urgency and seriousness about prevention by spending appropriate amounts of time and money on training or other prevention and response activities.Survey employees on whether they’re currently being harassed or know of harassment taking place.Avoid rewarding managers for minimum complaints on their team, as doing so could incentivize the suppression of reporting.Protect people from retaliation.Assess risk factors.Assess preventative measures already in place to ensure they are effective.Clarify what behavior is prohibited.Use discipline proportional to the offense. (Sexual assault and an offhand remark shouldn’t necessarily have the same consequence.)
For any of these measures to work, employees need to know that if they report harassment, their report will be taken seriously, they’ll be protected from retaliation, and the harassment will stop. In short, they need to trust their employer.
Consequently, anything an employer does to foster distrust will make anti-harassment measures much less effective. When it comes to preventing harassment, employers cannot say one thing and do another. Honesty and accountability are key. Trust can take time to build. It can also be lost in a single moment.
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