Employees are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This includes sexually imposing verbal or physical conduct, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.
Despite the laws in place and years’ worth of notorious cases that have raised awareness, sexual harassment claims and lawsuits are still common in America today. With more forms of electronic communication, including social media and texting, the types of incidences are becoming more varied, making workplace sexual harassment harder to curtail than ever before.
You may be startled by some of the recent statistics:
- 44 percent of women say they have encountered unwanted touching and sexual advances in the workplace. (Cosmopolitan)
- 75 percent of workplace harassment goes unreported. (The Guardian)
- In 2016, 9.4 percent of workplace sexual harassment allegations resulted in settlements. (EEOC)
- Women are the victims in 80 percent of workplace sexual assault incidents. (NSVRC Report)
- Women between the ages of 25 and 34 are at the highest risk. (EEOC Study)
- Over the past 15 years, the number of complaints filed with the EEOC has held steady, between 7,000 and 9,000 cases per year. (Cosmopolitan)
So what must employers do to protect their employees and their businesses? We recommend taking five actions:
- Create and disseminate a policy prohibiting sexual harassment. Your policy should be compliant with all local, state, and federal laws. It should be specific about what is considered harassment, and under which laws. It should define managerial roles in preventing, identifying, and reporting sexual harassment. It should also prohibit anti-retaliation and intimidation following potential incidents. Finally, it should define the consequences for each specific type of behavior. All of this information, backed by a zero tolerance standard, should be included in the employee handbook that every employee receives on day one.
- Create an anti-harassment workplace culture. One thing we have learned from the recent media and celebrity cases is that certain workplace cultures foster sexual harassment, and multiple offenders are usually found in such workplaces. Creating a culture that is free of this behavior includes having training and a policy. It also extends to understanding the exact parameters of offensive speech, jokes, and behaviors that could lead to actions constituting legal sexual harassment.
- Hold mandatory sexual harassment training and retraining. We recommend doing this on an annual basis if sexual harassment has not been a problem in your workplace, and more often if it has. Some employers offer separate training for managers and subordinates, which we advise not only because the content for each group is different, but also to prevent people from feeling inhibited in the presence of superiors.
- Teach employees their options if situations arise. A reason for the high percentage of unreported cases is a lack of information on what to do to report it. Another is the fear of reprisal or losing one’s job. By proactively teaching employees how to handle a situation early on, including asking the alleged offender to stop, and reporting if it doesn’t, you can dramatically lower incidences and the damage they cause.
- Institute an investigation process that begins immediately following a complaint. Not taking immediate action can put your employee and your organization in jeopardy. Get legal counsel and determine the process for investigating a complaint and ensuring that the alleged behavior stops while the investigation is underway. Every complaint must be taken seriously.
Though these steps include some legal obligations, this article does not constitute legal advice. Please consult legal counsel when determining how to put these items into action. Your efforts will help to create a comfortable workplace environment, where everyone can thrive.