Sexual harassment has been a hot topic among legislators thanks to the issue finding its way into the national spotlight in the last few years through the #MeToo movement.
Employers are now taking more conscious steps to prevent unwelcome sexual advances and other forms of harassment in the workplace, and in places such as Delaware, Illinois, and Connecticut, workplace training is required by state law.
Whether or not you’re in a state that requires you to provide sexual harassment prevention training, it’s a good idea to put the practice into place now—not only to prepare for potential laws, but to keep your employees safe.
It might be difficult to start the process if you don’t have an HR department to lead the way, which can put you in a particularly vulnerable position when it comes to potential lawsuits. Here are a few things to think about as you get started on making your work environment a sexual harassment-free place.
Remember: this is not official legal advice. If you have any questions about the employment laws surrounding sexual harassment or how to handle harassment complaints, it’s best to consult an attorney.
What is considered sexual harassment under the law?
The definition of harassment is laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits harassment in workplaces with 15 or more employees based on—among other things—gender or sex.
According to the Department of Labor, there are two forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo (“this for that”) and hostile work environment harassment.
Quid pro quo
“Quid pro quo harassment generally results in a tangible employment decision based upon the employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors,” the DOL says on their website.
Example: If you’re a supervisor and you fire or deny promotion to one of your subordinate employees because he or she refuses a request of a sexual nature, you’re participating in quid pro quo harassment.
Hostile work environment
According to the DOL’s website, a hostile work environment “can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.”
There are many ways a hostile work environment can be created, including:
- Discussing sexual activities
- Telling off-color jokes
- Unnecessary touching
- Commenting on physical attributes
- Displaying sexually suggestive pictures
- Using demeaning or inappropriate terms or epithets
- Using indecent gestures
- Using crude language
- Sabotaging the victim’s work
- Engaging in hostile physical conduct
In order for harassing conduct to be considered illegal, it must be both unwelcome, based on the victim’s protected status, subjectively abusive, and objectively severe and pervasive enough to “create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive,” according to the DOL.
How do I start training employees on sexual harassment prevention?
The first step to preventing sexual harassment from occurring at your business is to create a written sexual harassment policy. If you have a policy in place that is followed and provides a complaint and investigation procedure, liability for a complaint can be avoided if the harasser is not a supervisor and the employee did not inform the employer of the harassment.
Make sure your policy includes the following:
- Clear articulation that your business prohibits all types of discrimination, including sexual harassment
- A definition of sexual harassment
- A zero-tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination
- Easy-to-understand examples of unacceptable behavior
- Clear and detailed procedures for violation reporting
- A clear explanation of the consequences
- A warning that retaliation against an employee who makes a claim is not tolerated
What should sexual harassment training include?
It’s not enough for you to simply lay out the rules. A general rule for best practice is to train your employees on sexual harassment prevention once a year. Your training should help employees understand the policy, how to recognize, prevent, and report sexual harassment, and demonstrate that you as an employer are committed to providing a safe workplace.
An effective training program should include:
- Examples of sexual harassment
- What to do if sexual harassment occurs
- How to report an incident
- How the employer will handle a complaint
- Investigation protocols
- Multiple ways to report incidents
- A zero-tolerance policy
- Assurance that any complaints will be dealt with immediately
- Corrective or disciplinary measures that will be taken
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