Every year, there are tens of thousands of reported cases of workplace sexual harassment in the United States. Outside of those numbers, many experts believe a majority of harassment incidents go unreported. Clearly, sexual harassment is a major issue for U.S. businesses and their employees. That is why it is so important for businesses to have well-crafted, clear sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures, as well as processes for addressing allegations of inappropriate and unlawful behavior. In this article, we will review how employers can take steps to protect their employees and meet their responsibilities under the law.
How to address reports of sexual harassment
If you do receive an allegation of sexual harassment, start by treating it with the utmost gravity and severity. The allegation does not have to be formal for you to launch an investigation: workplace gossip or a single off-hand conversation with a human resources (HR) employee is grounds to start looking into the matter.
As part of your sexual harassment policy, you should have put together a general roadmap for investigating, and dealing with, allegations of harassment. If you have an HR team, they should have a detailed plan and process for talking to all the parties involved as part of their investigation. If you do not, you should:
- Talk with the employee making the allegation to get the full scope of what happened and what witnesses were present. Take detailed notes. During this conversation, you should refer back to your company’s policies and how the employee is protected from retaliatory action.
- Next, speak with the employee accused of inappropriate behavior. Tell them that you are conducting an investigation into the incident, and that your work will be fair and transparent.
- Interview any witnesses to the incident to get their perspective on what happened. As with before, be sure to take detailed notes. The more witnesses you have, the better understanding you will have about what transpired.
- Take all your notes and findings and talk with a trusted employment attorney in Los Angeles. They can review the details and give you the go-ahead to move forward with action.
- Depending on the results of the investigation, decide what to do. Be consistent with your sexual harassment policies, taking into account the recommendations of the employment law attorney.
Addressing allegations and incidents of sexual harassment can be difficult and complex. There is no general prescriptive approach for what to do in every scenario. Instead, managers will need to make tough, informed decisions. In general, make sure you:
- Conduct all sexual harassment allegations in the exact same manner, based on the same policies.
- Thoroughly document the investigation, your conversations, and your decision-making process.
- Consult with an attorney and human resources specialists if you need guidance.
Preventing sexual harassment
All employees have the right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment. For both the safety of their employees and their own legal liability, it is important for businesses to take proactive steps to prevent and deal with harassment allegations.
Every workplace should have a clear, published sexual harassment policy. This document outlines what sexual harassment consists of, what the the discplinary measures are for those who engage in harassment, and what the reporting process is. Typically included in an employee handbook or onboarding materials, your company’s sexual harassment policy should also include language regarding your obligations, including investigating any and all allegations of impropriety and protecting those who report harassment from any form of retaliation.
Everyone at your business—from your part-time and temporary employees to your managers—should be put through a mandatory training where you go over these policies and reinforce the reporting mechanism for sexual harassment allegations. Above all else, it is critical to have a clear, open way for employees to report incidents of sexual harassment, without fear of retaliation or their claim being ignored.
Review your policies with an attorney
If it has been several years since your business’ sexual harassment policies were updated—or if you are just now creating them for the first time—you should have an experienced employment law attorney review them before you publish and share them with your employees. These policies are not one-size-fits-all: there may be special considerations based on your industry, the size of your business, and the states in which you do work. An attorney can help you navigate these waters and craft a sexual harassment policy that is in the best interests of both your company and your employees.
To learn more about the prevalence of harassment in U.S. workplaces and how employers are addressing harassment allegations, be sure to take a look at this infographic from the law firm of Blair & Ramirez LLP in Los Angeles, California.