When a formal charge of sexual harassment is filed, whether with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an equivalent state agency, or in a lawsuit, one primary issue will be what (if anything) the employer did to prevent or stop the harassment.
There are several steps an employer should take to emphasize to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace. An employer's managers and supervisors play an important role in implementing each of these steps.
One of the most important things an employer can do is to adopt an effective sexual harassment policy, including a procedure for employees to raise complaints about harassment.
Every employer should have a written policy specifically prohibiting sexual harassment. The policy should be included in the employee handbook, distributed to all new employees, posted, redistributed on a regular basis, and communicated to employees often.
The policy should include language that:
Managers and supervisors must become completely familiar with the employer's policy prohibiting sexual harassment. They should reread the policy on a regular basis and consult the policy when any sexual harassment issue arises.
In addition to providing the policy to each employee, the policy should be read and explained to employees in group meetings. Employees should be educated to recognize and confront harassment. Managers and supervisors should be trained to enforce the policy, sensitized to recognize improper conduct among coworkers when it occurs, and educated about the appropriate actions to take to prevent and remedy misconduct.
To be an effective tool against sexual harassment, the policy should be regularly and clearly communicated to employees. This can be done formally at employee meetings and informally through managers' and supervisors' conversations with their reports.
Managers and supervisors can also take an active role in the communication process by requiring employees to attend training, following up with employees on what they learned at training, inviting questions regarding the training and the policy, and providing positive responses to employees who participate in the employer's efforts to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
After a policy against sexual harassment has been announced, managers and supervisors must also take follow-up action to make sure that employees are not engaging in prohibited activity. If a meeting is held telling employees to stop certain behavior, managers and supervisors should ensure that the meeting has been taken seriously by employees.
A complaint procedure should encourage employees to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. There should be several people to whom an employee can bring an initial complaint. Human resources officers or other appropriate employer representatives should be designated to investigate complaints. There should also be at least two potential investigators, in the event one is the accused harasser. Additionally, it is a good idea to designate both men and women as investigators, because the complainant might feel more comfortable reporting the conduct to someone of the same sex.
Managers and supervisors must take any complaint of sexual harassment that they receive seriously. They should immediately report the complaint to human resources or any other company representative charged with EEO-compliance responsibilities. They should assure employees that no retaliation will be taken against anyone who files a complaint and that their complaints will be handled as discreetly as possible. They should also tell anyone who complains that their allegations will be promptly and thoroughly investigated.
If you've been the victim of sexual harassment or sex-based discrimination at work, contact a knowledgeable employment lawyer to discuss your legal options. An attorney can help you file a claim with the EEOC or state agency, negotiate a settlement with your employer, or file a lawsuit in court.