Nondiscrimination laws require employers to maintain a work environment that is free from sexual and other types of harassment. Beyond compliance reasons, promoting a harassment-free workplace is the right thing to do and critical to maintaining a productive workforce. However, recent scandals in the media, academia, Hollywood, and Congress are indications that sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the workplace. In light of these improprieties, here are five key takeaways to help you assess your anti-harassment efforts:
#1: A policy isn’t enough.
While having a written anti-harassment policy is important (and even required in some jurisdictions), it will mean little if you don’t enforce it. If you observe or are put on notice that misconduct may have occurred, you have a duty to launch a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation. Depending on the circumstances, consider whether an internal investigation is sufficient or if you need to have an outside third party conduct an impartial investigation. If an investigation reveals that harassment occurred, take immediate and appropriate corrective action to remedy the harassment and prevent it from recurring. Administer your disciplinary policy on a consistent basis regardless of who is involved. If employees see you treating so-called ‘star’ employees leniently, it will likely breed a culture of mistrust and prevent employees from coming forward with complaints in the future.
#2: Training must improve.
Whether you’re required by law to provide training or not, it’s a best practice to train all employees on sexual and other types of harassment, from your top executives down to entry-level employees. Use training to show that harassment is not only against the law but also against your company’s values. Stress how important it is to your business to maintain a fair and harassment-free workplace for all employees and use a broad definition of “harassment.” Make clear that severe or pervasive conduct that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with their work performance, or creates a hostile or offensive work environment is prohibited, as well as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Additionally, prohibit any actions where it is expressed or implied that submission to unwelcome behavior will be used as the basis for employment decisions, such as promotions or benefits. Give employees examples of unacceptable conduct and consider drawing upon the latest scandals. For example, recent allegations included shoulder massages and discussions about sex initiated by the accused.
#3: Many victims fear reporting.
Sometimes victims of sexual harassment don’t report it, citing a concern that it will impact their career or cause additional trauma if they came forward. In some cases, there is a significant power differential between the accused and the accuser (for example, a top executive and an employee just beginning their career), which can make responding to and reporting harassment especially difficult. That’s why it’s critical to encourage all employees to report inappropriate conduct immediately, without fear of reprisal. Offer employees multiple avenues to report potential violations, and assure employees that you take all complaints seriously and will investigate the allegations. Never tell an employee who complains that he or she should “grow a thicker skin” or “that is just the way it is.” Following the investigation, discuss your findings (and planned corrective action, if applicable) with the employee. Confirm that they have been properly heard and understood, even if they disagree with the results. Continue to watch for warning signs that you may have a problem with a particular supervisor or department, such as elevated turnover or transfer requests and monitor that the conduct is no longer occurring and that no retaliation has taken place.
#4: Men, women, and non-binary individuals can be victims.
While women still represent a majority of the victims of harassment, men and non-binary individuals are also coming forward in growing numbers. Make sure you take all complaints seriously and handle them consistently, regardless of sex or gender of the alleged victim or harasser.
#5: Harassment is an “open secret” in some cases.
A common thread that has emerged from the recent scandals is that individuals subsequently came forward to say that they knew of the alleged misconduct, or heard rumors about alleged misconduct, but didn’t say anything at the time. Getting bystanders to report can be a challenge, but it is important to encourage employees to come forward when they witness or suspect harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently researching bystander intervention training to show employees how to spot unwelcome and offensive behavior and how to step in and take action when needed.
Employers must be diligent about preventing and responding to harassment not only when the spotlight is on sexual harassment but also when it fades.