Guest post by Terin Barbas Cremer, Esq.
The start of a new year in the world of employment law is always busy. Companies, like people, often set goals for achievement with their personnel or training. That makes this the busiest time of year for employment training. The calls for the 2018 new year have focused on protecting against sexual harassment complaints. Just pick up a newspaper, turn on the news, or scroll through Facebook, and it’s easy to see why. So what is sexual harassment, and what can you do to protect your company from a sexual harassment complaint?
Sexual harassment is sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It occurs in the workplace when a person (not necessarily an employee) makes continued unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to another employee. To qualify as harassment, the employee must feel that “submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects [their] employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
The law takes a broad approach. Sometimes people are surprised that:
- The victim can be a man.
- The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex as the harasser.
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or even a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed and can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- The victim does not have to suffer economic injury.
Sexual harassment claims are investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The best defense for a sexual harassment claim is prevention. Employers will see dividends when they train, document, and respond.
Annual employee training conducted by Human Resources in conjunction with an employment attorney or other external expert should teach all employees what sexual harassment is and how to report concerns of harassment. Frequently companies use this an opportunity to highlight their values and mission to further demonstrate to their employees their commitment to a safe work environment.
To address sexual harassment effectively there must be open lines of communication between managers on the front line and senior leaders. Training managers in appropriate responses and emotional intelligence (EQ) increases the probability they will recognize a harassment situation.
Employee handbooks should be reviewed annually to ensure compliance with changing laws and that the employer has established clear guidelines for how an employee can raise a complaint or concern of harassment.
If a complaint or grievance is made, take immediate action by initiating an investigation. A common media theme in 2017 was that employees feel HR cannot be trusted when making a complaint. Awareness of this trend and responding by hiring an independent investigator oftentimes provides the employee with necessary assurances to ensure a more amicable resolution.
In the case of sexual harassment, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Through training, proper documentation, and empathetic responses employers can create an employee culture that stays ahead of harassment claims and mitigates potential damages. Let 2018 be the year your company plays offense against sexual harassment and everyone wins.
Terin is President of Barbas Cremer, PLLC, an employment and business law firm. She is also a member of our Key Women’s Leadership Forum.