Sexual harassment: It’s something employers and HR directors don’t want to think about.
But adopting a “It could never happen in my organization” policy can lead to expensive lawsuits, bad publicity, and stress for everyone in your company.
ACE Workforce Technologies, labor and employee law attorney Jeffrey Ettenger of Schwartz Ettenger, PLLC in Melville, New York shared tips for setting sexual harassment policies in the workplace.
1 . Have a written policy.
A written policy can be outlined in the employee handbook or written as a separate document. It stands as the cornerstone of your sexual harassment policies.
“If employers do not give employees a written policy, and there’s an issue relative to sexual harassment in the workplace, the employer is generally going to lose all rights they have to defend that claim,” Ettenger said during the webinar.
The policy must outline the definition of sexual harassment, as well as how employees can file a complaint. It should also share information about what action the employer or HR department will take in the event of a complaint.
2. Conduct employee training sessions.
New York and California both mandate sexual harassment training sessions. The requirements vary by state, but Ettenger recommends that employers in any state, with any size business, provide a live, interactive training session of 60 to 90 minutes annually. This would exceed most state requirements. “In most cases, employees learn something during training that makes their workplace safer and better,” Ettenger said.
3. Understand new state laws.
As a result of the #metoo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, many states introduced new regulations for education about sexual harassment in the workplace. For instance, the State of New York lays out very clear guidelines for the frequency of training and the content within the training.
4. Know how to properly investigate claims.
If an employee makes a complaint of sexual harassment, HR executives and business owners must understand how to investigate and, if needed, defend against those claims. They must understand new laws stating that sexual harassment need not be severe or pervasive to be punishable.
New York State provides sexual harassment claim forms that employers can make available to employees. Since statutes consider sexual harassment a form of discrimination, employees should know they can also file a complaint with the Division of Human Rights, which will result in an investigation and could result in a public hearing.
Obviously, it’s an employer’s best interests to investigate and manage claims of sexual harassment in-house. Employees should understand they can speak anonymously, and without judgment, to the HR department and that the HR director will take immediate action to investigate the claims.
HR directors should work to avoid a potential lawsuit by dealing with any allegations quickly and fairly. They should aim to foster a working environment where employees feel safe to do their jobs without harassment, but also safe to speak up if something or someone in the workplace makes them uncomfortable.
5. Understand the ramifications of not having policies in place.
“Until you have a problem and don’t handle it properly, you don’t know how bad it can get,” Ettenger said in the webinar.
State and federal laws ensure that victims receive just compensation, which may include:
- Lost earnings
- Compensations for emotional distress
- Punitive damages
- Attorney’s fees
By avoiding sexual harassment in the workplace and, hence, sexual harassment claims, employers can save money, time, and stress. Sexual harassment claims can hurt productivity, company morale, and evade the trust people have within an organization.
Companies may also face negative publicity, which can even affect sales or partnerships, if the lawsuit makes headlines.
Training, Education, and Engagement
Sexual harassment training should mitigate issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sometimes, workers don’t realize their actions or comments constitute sexual harassment, which is why education and a written policy are crucial first steps toward preventing sexual harassment.
Every employer should seek to create a working environment where all employees feel safe, respected and, as a result, engaged in their work. More so today than ever before, sexual harassment policies must be part of these initiatives.