Figuring out how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace may be overwhelming and uncomfortable, but it certainly beats landing in middle of a lawsuit.
A prime example in the news this week: the San Diego mayor's sexual harassment scandal. As more alleged victims step forward, employers may want to take a more critical look at their own actions, their employees' actions, and their workplace policies.
Here are seven tips to help prevent sexual harassment at work:
- Craft a strong anti-harassment policy. Your comprehensive employee anti-harassment policy should include sections about discrimination and harassment, the process for reporting harassment, and the disciplinary measures for harassment. Have workers and managers sign off on it after they've read it, and perhaps even post the policy where it can easily be seen.
- Keep your office parties "PG"-rated. Cutting loose with your team is fine, but remind employees about prohibited sexual behavior. You may also want to implement a dress code, or prohibit risque or offensive entertainment. This may go without saying, but don't throw an office sex party.
- Have supervisors attend anti-harassment workshops. The U.S. Supreme Court recently clarified that a "supervisor" for purposes of Title VII lawsuits is an employee who has the ability to hire or fire an employee. Though the decision narrows the definition and limits an employer's strict liability for harassment, you may want to play it safe: Make sure all higher-level employees -- even those who don't have hiring or firing abilities -- receive anti-harassment training as well.
- Address sexual harassment complaints immediately. It's important to take swift action to investigate and address harassment claims. Beyond avoiding or limiting your liability, taking prompt action sends a strong message to your employees that you take harassment claims very seriously.
- Prevent retaliation. As demonstrated by the women in the San Diego mayor's case, victims of sexual harassment often hesitate to come forward because they fear retaliation. Retaliation could expose you to liability and embolden harassers. Remind employees that it's against the law to retaliate against an employee for filing a claim. Your ostensible commitment to the law could prove a powerful deterrant to potential harassers.
- Don't laugh at or encourage inappropriate jokes. Some employees have, shall we say, colorful senses of humor. Hey, you might like it, too. But people may perceive crude humor as offensive. Remind employees that comments, jokes or gestures that aren't "safe for work" should be checked at the door.
- Consult with an employment attorney. Consider consulting with an experienced employment law attorney to flesh out more options on how to deter sexual harassment in the office and avoid a Mayor Filner-esque debacle.
To learn more about workplace discrimination, different types of harassment, and what employers can do, check out FindLaw's section on Discrimination and Harassment for small business owners.
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