Harmless fun amongst co-workers can often turn sour if the correct checks, balances and mechanisms are not in place to deal with sexual harassment. This is true for both employers and employees because legal liability for sexual harassment claims can extend to organizations and individuals, including those who may not be direct perpetrators, due the discriminating and humiliating nature of sexual harassment.
Therefore, having an effective, efficient framework in place to actively deal with and prevent uncomfortable situations will reap rewards for both employers and employees. In this article we’ll provide an overview of what steps you can take to protect yourself from the liability of sexual harassment claims.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual Harassment may be deemed to have occurred if unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature have occurred in the context of an employment decision affecting the victim having been made as a result of the individual’s submission or rejection of the unwelcome conduct or the unwelcome conduct interfering unreasonably with the victims work performance or creating an abusive, intimidating or hostile work environment.
1. Have A Clear Policy
Every organization should have a clearly outlined Sexual Harassment Policy and each employee should be presented with a copy of this policy. Furthermore, all employees should have easy access to the policy if they should require it and the policy should be posted in common areas so that everyone may be reminded of it.
A Sexual Harassment Policy should clearly state that the organization is committed to providing a discrimination and harassment free work environment for employees with a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment. It should also make clear that the policy is applicable to all employees and that no one who chooses to come forward with a complaint will face any adverse consequences.
It’s a great idea to sit down with HR experts when drafting your Sexual Harassment Policy as they will have a wealth of experience for you to draw on. However, here are some of the important areas your policy should cover:
• Ensure all senior management attend anti-harassment workshops – this will help them to handle any situation that may arise and everyone will have a clear understanding of the subject matter.
• Office Parties – A clear code of conduct at these events including guidelines on dress code and conduct can ensure that no one crosses any lines.
• Office Romances – A clear policy on this is essential and if permitted, then a formal consensual agreement between the two parties is an effective way of protecting both the parties to the romance and the organization from sexual harassment claims. Agreements should include a declaration of consent and non-coercion from both parties, prohibition from report/supervisor roles for either party where the other is the counterparty and a clause to the effect that, should the relationship end both parties shall refrain from any retaliation in the workplace.
• Jokes & Humour – It’s essential that employees understand that everything has a time and a place and that not everyone is going find everything funny. Should sexually offensive, humiliating or degrading jokes/comments be made, they should not be tolerated and the offending employee must be informed of the Sexual Harassment Policy in place.
2. Formal Policy Agreement
It’s essential that all employees place their signature on a copy of the Sexual Harassment Policy to signify their formal agreement to it, with it and to uphold it. The employee should be given a copy and the original retained within the organization’s records for future reference if necessary.
3. Proper Policy Implementation
One of the best ways to reduce, limit and or eliminate liability to sexual harassment claims is to implement your Sexual Harassment Policy effectively. Apart from what has already been discussed, it’s essential to:
• Respond to claims right away – Taking immediate action to remedy a situation where an employee reports sexual harassment is the best way to both reduce liability and reassure employees that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated.
• Prevent retaliation by the aggressor – Many people fear lodging a complaint because of the possible repercussions. Therefore, as a part of your policy it’s important to make clear to all employees that retaliating against a complainant is wrong and illegal.
Simply put, it’s essential to have a clear policy that is well implemented. Employers should take every reasonable effort to provide a safe, comfortable and friendly environment for all of their employees. To this end, prevention is the most potent method and a clear, well implemented policy is the best mechanism to that end.