Avoiding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Avoiding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Paul was widely regarded as a successful project manager. His team had a reputation for top performance. By almost every metric, they exceeded expectations and made a major contribution to the organization’s bottom line. While a close-knit team, there was no shortage of what most of them considered harmless humor. Sure, they crossed the line at times, especially with regard to crude jokes, but almost all agreed that this was just good natured fun. One of those who did not see the situation as good natured fun was Lucy. As the only woman on the team, she was often a target of the crude jokes. Many of these spread like wildfire via company email and text messaging. When she mentioned her concerns to Paul, he remarked that she needed to have thicker skin and not let trivial things bother her.

Things came to a head late one day when Paul was exchanging some crude comments about Lucy’s body during a text conversation he was having with three senior members of the team. Lucy happened to be working late that day, and sent Paul a text message with a question regarding her project. In the course of the two text conversations, Paul inadvertently sent Lucy a text message that he intended to go to the senior members of the team. In that message, he made some derogatory comments about Lucy and her body. Now at the boiling point, Lucy contacted an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment litigation.

The amount of sexual harassment in the workplace is staggering. The EEOC reports that for 2015, there were 26,393 charges filed for sexual harassment. While this number may seem high, it is important to understand that the vast majority of sexual harassment incidents are not reported, so the real number of incidents is much higher. On a recent Elephant in the Valley survey, 60% of women in Technology reported experiencing unwanted advances and one in three experienced fear for their safety.

It is important for organizations of every size to make sure they are free of sexual harassment. This is more than just a legal or moral obligation, it makes sense from a business perspective as well. If you have a work environment where sexual harassment flourishes, not only will you be subjected to costly lawsuits, you will also face diminished productivity and morale challenges. Following are some strategies that can help your organization prevent sexual harassment:

  1. Start with a concise sexual harassment policy.

    This can be listed in your employee handbook, code of conduct or both. The policy should start with a definition of sexual harassment stating in clear terms that you will not tolerate it. Point out that you will discipline or fire any wrongdoers. You should also outline a process for filing sexual harassment complaints. Your sexual harassment policy should be covered in new employee orientation.

  2. Train ALL of your managers.

    Anyone who is managing employees should have sexual harassment training on a regular basis. Depending on the size and turnover of your organization typically once every 1-2 years should be fine. Managers should be educated how to be observant of potential sexual harassment problems as well as how to deal with complaints. Tip: Most sexual harassment trainers will allow their session to be videotaped. You can then have all newly promoted managers or newly hired managers view the video as part of their orientation.

  3. Train ALL of your employees.

    Make sure employees are aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. The organization’s stance of sexual harassment should also be clearly conveyed as well as the complaint process employees should follow if they experience sexual harassment. As with managers, employees should be trained every 1-2 years.

  4. Don’t DIY it.

    If you are not familiar with how to set up a program that addresses sexual harassment as well as federal and state legal requirements, reach out to a human resources consultant or attorney who specializes in this area. We are here to help.

Keep in mind that while there are no federal requirements for sexual harassment training, some states require it. Even if your state does not require it, I highly recommend training all employees. It will clarify what constitutes sexual harassment, define specifically how they can get help if they experience it, and most importantly clarify your organization’s position on sexual harassment.

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