Sexual harassment in the workplace is again in the national spotlight. Organizations have a legal responsibility to protect employees from sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An effective prevention plan includes clear Code of Conduct guidelines, awareness training and leadership modeling best practices to make it undeniably clear that an organization has a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and retaliation.
Sexual harassment and the threat of retaliation creates a hostile work environment and allows misconduct to continue and wrongdoers to go unpunished. If employers fail to take complaints of sexual harassment seriously, or fail to act against retaliatory behavior, it opens the door to costly Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuits and penalties.
Sexual harassment can take many forms, including sexual innuendo, unwelcome touching and sexual assault. However, words and actions don’t have to be of a sexual nature to be considered sexual harassment. For example, making offensive remarks about how women do not belong in the workplace is considered sexual harassment.
The EEOC identifies two types of sexual harassment:
- Quid Pro Quo is the expressed or implied demands for sexual favors in exchange for some benefit (e.g., a promotion) or to avoid some detriment (e.g., termination, demotion) in the workplace. Quid pro quo harassment is typically perpetrated by someone who is in a position of power or authority over a subordinate.
- Hostile Work Environment is when speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating or demeaning environment or situation that negatively affects a person’s job performance. Examples include inappropriate touching, sexual jokes or comments, repeated requests for dates and displaying offensive pictures.
Workplace retaliation often begins with a complaint of harassment when a superior or coworker takes negative actions against someone who voices a concern about perceived misconduct. Retaliatory behaviors can be subtle, such as excluding individuals from professional activities, to overt, such as demotion, transfer or dismissal.
Pew Research reports that almost 70% of women surveyed said they experienced being sexually harassed in a professional setting — frequently by someone more senior in an organization. A similar survey by CareerBuilder found that 72% of workplace sexual harassment victims don’t report it due to a fear of retaliation.
Seven states require employers to provide sexual harassment training, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York and Washington State. Regardless of whether it is mandated by law, training to address sexual harassment and retaliation should be an essential part of an organization’s strategy to build workplace trust and respect.
5 ways to prevent sexual harassment and retaliation
- Communicate a strict, no tolerance policy
Explain what improper workplace interactions look like in your organization’s Code of Conduct and sexual harassment prevention training and spell out the consequences for offenders.
- Make leaders accountable
By demonstrating through their actions the importance of treating everyone with respect, leaders send a clear message that preventing discrimination and harassment and creating a culture of trust is a high priority.
- Train managers on their responsibility to prevent harassment and retaliation
Ensure managers are properly trained on how to implement an anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy and act in a timely and confidential manner when allegations arise.
- Watch for retaliatory red flags
Reassure employees they won’t be punished for speaking up about being harassed by anyone at work, regardless of title and seniority level. Stay alert to actions by supervisors or coworkers ostracizing or excluding an employee, or a sudden increase in negative documentation regarding an employee’s performance.
- Explain how complaints will be handled and outline steps
Educate everyone on how to report complaints of misconduct, including whom to contact in the event harassment is coming from a superior. Make it clear that all complaints are taken seriously and followed-up with an investigation, interviews and resolution.
Creating a healthy workplace culture that is free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation supports the well-being of employees, the productivity of day-to-day operations and the overall reputation of your organization. Ongoing training is vital to ensuring employees and managers understand what sexual harassment entails, know the steps for reporting misconduct and feel safe speaking up about their concerns without fear of reprisal.
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