In recent months, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has dominated the nation’s collective conversation. This watershed moment is prompting leaders of many organizations – corporate, nonprofit, and governmental – to evaluate and improve workplace standards and culture.
According to a Report prepared by the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, harassment in the workplace (including on the basis of sex, race, disability, age, ethnicity, national origin, color, and religion) “remains a persistent problem.” Furthermore, workplace harassment, particularly sexual harassment, often goes unreported, and therefore is not addressed. As a consequence, many organizations may have serious undisclosed sexual harassment problems.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of gender-based discrimination. It involves unwelcome sexual conduct that:
• Is used as the basis for hiring or other employment decisions, such as promotions, raises, or job assignments; or
• Creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Numerous federal, state, and local laws provide employees the right to be free from sexual harassment and discrimination. While some sexual harassment laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, require a threshold number of employees to apply, many others apply to all employees regardless of the employer’s size. Every employee in the State of New York, for example, is entitled to a working environment free from sexual harassment pursuant to the New York Human Rights Law.
What can you do now to ensure your organization maintains a workplace free from sexual harassment?
Set the Tone at the Top of the Organization. Effective prevention efforts must start at the highest level of management. Leadership and accountability are crucial. No system of training, monitoring, or reporting is likely to succeed in preventing harassment in the absence of genuine and public buy-in from the top levels of any organization.
Implement Strong Policies with Clear Principles. Institute strong policies and procedures to support the clear principles set by senior management, with clear reporting lines. Implement policies and procedures that govern what employees should do if they encounter harassment. Make clear the reporting process and include alternative reporting channels allowing victims to bypass immediate supervisors. Conduct compliance reviews and evaluate policies and procedures periodically, and update them as necessary based on the needs of the organization.
Train your employees. Develop tailored workplace training that sets the standard for respectful behavior at work. Effective training can reduce workplace harassment, but must also serve as one component within a broader culture in which harassment is deemed unacceptable.
Conduct Independent, Prompt, and Thorough Investigations. Federal law requires a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into allegations of harassment in the workplace. Treat any and all allegations with urgency and seriousness, and the employees who voice them with respect. Acting in a rapid, thorough, and unbiased manner when responding to allegations will ensure that the best evidence is preserved. It also will boost morale of employees who see that management views workplace issues seriously. Ensure that the investigative process is applied fairly and consistently in every case.
Maintain Confidentiality. All investigations should be conducted in a confidential manner to the extent possible.
Take Swift and Decisive Action. If the findings of the investigation support harassment allegations, take swift and decisive action.
Establish and Enforce Anti-Retaliation Policies. Ensure that employees who report harassment will not be subjected to retaliation.
Communicate with Your Employees. Make it clear that all employees have a role to play in keeping the workplace safe and free of harassment.
Ensure Equal Opportunities. In order to maintain a workplace free of harassment, all employees must have equal opportunities to succeed, including through mentoring, advising, and promotion. A wide range of employees should be included in decision-making processes and in shaping the culture of the workplace.