More than a million people have shared their Twitter posts since Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors of sexual harassment and assault to publicly post their #MeToo status this past October. The last time sexual harassment came to the forefront was when Anita Hill spoke out about Clarence Thomas in 1991 at his televised Senate confirmation hearing. Even though Thomas joined the Supreme Court; Hill’s testimony is credited for a dramatic increase in sexual harassment complaints with the EEOC. Companies should anticipate history to repeat.
When a disaster hits the news, especially local news, employees should be reminded of the company’s position and plan. It makes employees feel safe and assured that the company is looking out for their well-being. Think of #MeToo and the flood of high-profile
sexual harassment allegations like tornado season. Now is the time for companies to speak;
reinforce the policy.
The first step is to understand what the law protects.
Understand quid pro quo, hostile work environment, the range of behavior
described as sexual favors and understand harassment need not be sexual; it may
be offensive remarks about a particular sex. Title VII is not a general
civility code and one incident of bad behavior is not generally harassment.
However defining and improving civility in the workplace has only positive
outcomes including improved retention and productivity.
Next, review your existing policy and complaint procedure. Your
policy should prohibit all forms of harassment based on any protected class,
including sex. Require employees to report harassment and provide several
avenues to communicate. Demonstrate an obligation to prohibit retaliation
against employees who make a complaint or support others who come forward
regardless of the outcome. A victim of sexual harassment is often reluctant to
come forward, uncomfortable talking about the incident and fears retaliation
from the alleged harasser and others.
The EEOC has recently issued guidance on Title VII training which includes training all employees on what employees should do, in addition to what behaviors are prohibited. Training should include discrimination, harassment, reporting, and retaliation. Companies should review their training to ensure supervisors will efficiently handle and escalate complaints, and take action when they witness or are subject to harassment. Supervisors should be held accountable to enforce and abide by the company’s policy and procedure.
The next step is ensuring the company has professionals
trained in conducting thorough and effective investigations. When selecting an
investigator for a sexual harassment allegation, consider who is involved and
the nature of the allegation. The investigator should be tailored to the
circumstances and people involved. It is often a good idea to hire an external
investigator, especially when management is involved. This can immediately
demonstrate good faith. The company should be prepared to take appropriate
remedial action including termination of employment against those who
perpetuate or knowingly permit harassment to occur.
Sexual harassment not only effects the company’s reputation and brand; it affects the victim, co-workers and the culture. Companies who prevent harassment through ongoing training and vigilance maintain a safe and healthy workplace.
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