On The Issues: Sexual Harassment

It’s no question that sexual harassment is in the news, but keep in mind that the high profile cases aren’t the only incidents taking place. Stefanie Altweiss from New Orleans-based HR consulting firm Gotcha Covered HR explains what you should know and what steps you can take to protect your business.

Having worked in Human Resources for over 35 years, I have dealt with, and worked to prevent, sexual harassment allegations from many sides. This has ranged from investigating myriad complaints of sexual harassment, representing clients accused of unlawful misconduct, mediating complaints when they have become lawsuits, and training supervisors, employees, department chairs, and students on appropriate workplace conduct. I have counseled parties on appropriate resolution and remedial measures, and businesses on how to put preventative measures in place to avoid unlawful behaviors in their workplace – while setting up reporting procedures to learn if unwanted conduct has occurred.

The steps I outline below should help establish both policies – guidelines for your company, and procedures – defined and actionable steps to take in the event that sexual harassment takes place.

Sexual Harassment Defined
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating hostile, or offensive work environment.”

I summarize this definition by saying sexual harassment is an act or actions that are “severe” and “pervasive.” If actions are severe and pervasive, then it will interfere with the victim’s work, and the EEOC’s definition will apply.

Hire HR Staff and Develop a Reporting Procedure
There are several measure that businesses can take to prevent or minimize ongoing serious misconduct, before so egregious and intolerable. From the outset, a business should consider hiring an HR person to which employees can report, whether in-house or an outside consultant – someone who is trusted by the employees and promoted by the employer as someone to whom concerns may be voiced. There should be a provision in the handbook (along with the legal protections against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation) specifying the person to whom employees should report, with an alternative person identified, in case that person is not available or may not be impartial.

An available, knowledgeable HR person can identify sensitive issues and is positioned to either resolve a situation before it gets worse or direct remedial measures in accordance with the severity of workplace conduct. To take no action at all is not only a bad business decision, but it is also a violation of the law. The law requires that once you know (or should have known) about a complaint of sexual harassment, an employer has a duty to investigate the matter promptly and thoroughly. Without a reporting procedure, a company may be uninformed of inappropriate unlawful conduct; that it, until is becomes public or results in expensive litigation.

In our experience, most employees do not want to file lawsuits. They want a decent place to work every day, and once there, they want to feel treated with dignity and respect. Employees want to work in a safe and inclusive environment.

Make Employees Feel Secure In Reporting Misconduct
Another critical mistake is for a company to either explicitly or implicitly discourage employees from complaining about workplace conduct, or more commonly, to not take complaints seriously when they are reported. Having policies and procedures in place – and communicating them to your employees – can go a long way toward encouraging employees to report misconduct. Training is also key. Training puts employees on notice about what is not accepted in your company, and it helps the victims of harassment feel secure in coming forward.

From a cost-effective objective, if you are a business owner, you certainly want to resolve complaints internally in lieu of defending a lawsuit or a charge of discrimination filed with the EEOC – both of which can end with the business owing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, damages, and loss of reputation in the community.

Build A Productive And Successful Workplace
As Gotcha Covered HR, our philosophy is that employees are a businesses’ most valuable asset. Each employee is morally and legally entitled to a work environment free from harassment and discrimination in his or her daily interaction with co-employees, supervisors, vendors, customers, and third parties. Every employer, in order to provide a productive and successful workplace environment, should have policies in place to educate their employees about their right to work in a safe and inclusive workplace. Gotcha Covered HR can assist you with policies, training, investigation of complaints, and employee relations matters to help you create and maintain a more successful relationship with your workforce.

Gotcha Covered is a New Orleans-based Human Resources consulting firm that offers solutions to a variety of HR issues and challenges. Learn more at gotchacoveredhr.com or contact Stefania Allweiss at 504-737-2438 or stefanie@gotchacoveredhr.com.

Originally posted on LCI Wokers’ Comp website