By ComplyRight –

Today's WorkplaceThe issue of sexual harassment in the workplace continues to attract extensive media coverage, as more victims are empowered to report misconduct against them.

Since the start of 2018 alone, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed or settled several high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits. Beavers’ Inc., which owns several Arby’s fast-food franchises, is among the latest companies to face the courts after the EEOC filed a lawsuit against them. The federal agency charged that the company broke the law when it subjected several teenage female employees at an Arby’s in Atmore, Alabama, to sexual harassment.

According to the lawsuit, an Arby’s team leader trainee repeatedly pressured young female workers to have sex with him, used sexually graphic language, and touched a female employee in an unwelcome and inappropriate manner. The lawsuit also revealed that, although these employees complained to supervisors and managers, Arby’s did not address the problem for several months until the harasser physically harmed one of the victims. 

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances and other misconduct of a sexual nature. This behavior is sexual harassment when it “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Establish a Strong and Clear Policy to Prevent Harassment

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to provide a harassment and discrimination-free workplace for all employees. Are you doing enough to discourage the comments, gestures and behavior that could expose your business to costly and time-consuming lawsuits?

Developing and distributing a written no-harassment policy is a useful approach to prevent sexual misconduct at the workplace. The policy should clearly explain the types of conduct that are prohibited and address harassment committed by anyone in the workplace, including executives, managers, coworkers and non-employees (such as vendors and clients).

Include definitions and examples of harassment, an overview of employee rights in the workplace, and solid communication that the company has zero tolerance for all forms of workplace harassment.

Provide Harassment Prevention Training for Staff

In addition to having a formal, clearly communicated policy in place, you can strengthen your prevention efforts and response to sexual harassment with regular staff training.

Your employees will have a better understanding of what is considered harassing behavior and how to report it. Your managers require special harassment training, as well, so they know how to respond quickly and appropriately to complaints.

But not all training is the same. To be effective, you want to use training materials that engage your employees and emphasize the importance of personal accountability. Use fresh, current and interactive material that fits in with your company’s culture. This way, your employees can relate to it and easily grasp the overall message.

How to Handle Employee Complaints

Despite your anti-harassment efforts, incidents can still occur. And if they do, you must be prepared to respond. Here are some guidelines for addressing harassment complaints properly.

  • Don’t rush to fire the accused employee. Though it may be tempting to fire the alleged harasser right away to send a strong message that sexual misconduct isn’t tolerated, this approach is risky. You must ensure the decision-making process is fair to all parties, and firing someone without due process or credible evidence could expose your business to a wrongful termination claim.
  • Listen to employee concerns and take them seriously. Listening to the details of a harassment claim is the first step toward getting a complete picture of what occurred. Let the employee do most of the talking and take detailed notes.You also can ask questions to clarify key points, but avoid challenging the truthfulness of the complaint or drawing conclusions. Instead, reassure your employee that you take his or her complaint seriously and will follow through with a thorough investigation.
  • Prepare a detailed report. Accurate and detailed documentation is essential, so write down all the information as presented to you as soon as the meeting is over. Be sure to note any potential eyewitnesses mentioned by the employee, as well as persons in whom the employee may have confided.
  • Ensure the harassment doesn’t happen again. While the complaint is being investigated, things can get awkward at the office. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, you can choose to have the alleged harasser work from home or go on leave. Explain to the accused employee that this is precautionary and also point out that retaliation against the person reporting will not be tolerated.
  • Conduct a full investigation. You can designate an HR specialist, a trusted senior leader or other qualified individual within your company to carry out an in-depth investigation. This includes interviewing all involved employees and possible witnesses, gathering evidence and presenting the facts. If you don’t have a qualified internal investigator, consider hiring an attorney or off-site consultant. An outsider can be more objective and strengthen the credibility of your defense in the event of a legal dispute.
  • Act quickly. Sensitive workplace issues such as sexual harassment should be addressed promptly. The EEOC urges employers to respond within 48 hours of receiving a complaint.

Get the Latest Small Business Survey on Harassment

ComplyRightManaging sexual harassment in the workplace, though difficult, is an important responsibility for employers. By taking a proactive approach and creating a culture of accountability and awareness, you can protect your workers from harassment and reduce your legal risk.

To learn more about how small businesses are handling sexual harassment in the workplace, get ComplyRight’s free March 2018 Trend Survey.