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How to Handle Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
As a workplace manager in this day and age, navigating the nuances of regulatory, cultural and ethical concerns is challenging. Among the most challenging issues, sexual harassment stands out as one of the most challenging.
The handling of workplace harassment as a manager is critical for a host of ethical and legal reasons. If handled poorly, the victim may find themselves encumbered in a dangerous and traumatic situation for longer than necessary. Mishandled harassment within a workplace may foster a culture of hostility likely to spiral into greater abuses.
Additionally, when organizations poorly handle harassment amongst their ranks, they open themselves to a great deal of legal action and vulnerability. Unchallenged harassment within a workplace creates a high degree of legal exposure for the organization. With over 10,000 sex-based charges (5,500 of those being specifically related to sexual harassment) filed with the Federal EEOC in 2021 alone, and with settlements and annual damages running into the millions, it is wise for organizations to address harassment incidents head-on and as quickly as possible.
Put a Workplace Sexual Harassment Policy in Place
One of the simplest ways to help your organization preemptively address harassment is to have a sexual harassment policy in place. Failure to have a harassment policy in place makes a very difficult to hold an offending employee to any specific standard. A policy draws a clear line, lays down specific expectations for poor conduct, and outlines expected consequences for harassing behavior.
Additionally, failure to have a clearly communicated and posted employee harassment policy creates a challenging legal disadvantage in the event the organization finds itself facing a harassment-related lawsuit. More importantly, failure to have such a policy, and specific content within that policy, may violate state laws, opening the organization to further legal woes.
Making sure all employees are aware of and have access to the organization’s harassment policy is crucial. It is not enough to create a policy and bury it on a shelf of policy manuals that never see the light of day. The harassment policy should be reviewed at least once in a company or department meeting, given to and reviewed with all new hires, provided digitally to all employees annually, and posted publicly in the company. Additionally, any state regulations regarding posting harassment-related posters or information should also be followed carefully, to ensure your organization is compliant.
In addition to maintaining a clear policy, it’s a great idea to require your employees to complete sexual harassment prevention training. Affordable software solutions, such as WiseDaily, can help break down this training into well-produced, brief activities that will promote a better-educated workplace culture.
Create an Easy, Safe Way for Employees to Report Harassment
Along with posting and disseminating harassment policies, another key factor to fighting harassment in your organization is to provide a simple, safe way for employees to report incidents of harassment.
Starting with an ‘open door’ policy is a good step. This means coaching all managers and supervisors on the importance of communicating that their door is always open and they are always available to discuss concerns from an employee. Creating a ‘see something, say something’ culture of openness and empathy will help surface and address instances of harassment quickly.
Having an open door is not always enough, however, and it is wise for organizations to provide a means to report harassment that is not face-to-face as well as which provides the employee the ability to report harassment above their direct supervisor, in the event their supervisor is the offending party. This usually entails setting up a dedicated inbox which is monitored by human resources employees or by the executive team of the company.
While some leadership may balk at setting up simple avenues of harassment reporting, it is important to remember that local and state law may require such measures. The simple reality is, if the organization does not address harassment issues, state and federal avenues exist to report harassment and the issue is likely to bubble up to those levels more quickly when ignored by the organization.
Reinforce a No-Retaliation Culture Related to Harassment Reporting
One reason harassment often goes unreported is for fear of retaliation by individuals or the organization, despite such retaliation being illegal and prohibited. According to one study on sexual harassment, approximately 3 out of 4 people failed to report harassment “because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.”
While removing this fear entirely is likely impossible, organizations can deeply improve the culture around such reporting, starting with the attitudes and communication from leadership. An approach to this may be shifting language related to harassment reporting from “you can say something” to “you must say something”, reinforcing both the seriousness with which harassment is going to be handled and the fundamental interest the organization has in the individual’s well-being.
Additionally, frequently reiterating a “no tolerance” mantra around harassment will help employees feel empowered and able to speak up when reporting harassment.
Lastly, in cases where retaliation is found to have occured, swiftly and decisively addressing that situation is key to preserving and building confidence in your organization’s stance on harassment and reporting retaliation.
Steps to Handling a Sexual Harassment Claim
What are the basic steps to handling a sexual harassment complaint? The following list is a general guide for managers responding to a sexual harassment claim at work:
1. Take all harassment, observed or suspected, very seriously
As a manager, evidence of harassment may be overt and easily identified, or may come to you by way of rumor or suspicion. Whatever the case, any hint of harassment must be taken very seriously. A claim carefully investigated that comes to nothing is likely to be far less destructive than a valid instance of harassment that is ignored. Additionally, suspected or known harassment must be investigated, regardless of whether the victim desires it to be investigated, according to EEOC law.
2. Establish an open line of communication with the complainant
Approaching the investigation of such a harassment claim must be handled delicately and with a certain amount of grace, in order to not exacerbate the situation. The first step is to reassure the allegedly harassed employee that they are to continue to communicate with you regarding and further harassment, retaliations, or otherwise unwanted attention.
3. Ask the complainant to document the incident in writing
It is important to establish a written record of the incident as early as possible. Facts and memories get fuzzy as time passes and emotions run high, making it critical to clearly document as many details as possible. It is best that this documentation takes place in a system in which there is accountability. If done over email, ensure all parties retain all copies of sent and received messages. If done within another messaging platform, ensure that some form of permanent timestamping and versioning is in place and that messages cannot be unilaterally deleted by any one party. If records are being submitted manually via hard paper, ensure all documents are dated, signed by all parties present, and that copies are given to all parties at all times.
4. Create your own record of events and notes
In this early phase of a complaint, it is important to listen more than speak. Take notes of what is said and carefully record any details possible, however small they may seem. Pay special attention to relevant dates, times, circumstances and witnesses. In short, document everything communicated regarding the incident until the matter is closed, including intangible factors such as emotional state, stress levels, and any other impressions of the circumstances.
5. Notify the accused individual of the harassment claim against them
It is important to communicate two key items at this stage.
First, the accused must clearly understand that a complaint has been made against them and that such a claim must be adequately investigated and addressed according to company policy and any relevant laws.
Assure them the matter will be fairly and impartially investigated and that they are not presumed to be guilty on the basis of being accused alone. Not treating the accused as guilty prior to gathering the facts is an important step in ensuring that they will cooperate with the investigation.
If the claim is valid, and the accused is found to have been hostile or harassing toward coworkers, this confrontation is often enough to quell further harassment. When an individual participating in predatory behavior understands that their behavior is now public and being watched, it will quite frequently be reigned in.
In other cases, where the accused acted in an inappropriate way out of ignorance, the knowledge that their behavior had been harmful to others and is unwelcome may be enough for them to self-correct and discontinue any further behavior of their own accord.
Second, the accused individual must understand that no retaliation will be tolerated whatsoever. Assuming the organization already has a robust harassment policy in place which includes a zero-tolerance clause regarding retaliation, the individual should be resupplied with the policy and the relevant portions should be reviewed. This allows a baseline of expected behavior to be reset and ensures that any hostile action from the accused will be noted as retaliatory.
Additionally, communicating the gravity of retaliation in such a situation is recommended. The EEOC specifically protects individuals from retaliation for “communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment”.
6. Interview all parties and any witnesses
After communicating expectations to all parties, the next step is to conduct interviews of all parties involved in the claim, as well as any witnesses.
During this stage of the process, the goal should simply be fact gathering and understanding. It is often tempting to draw conclusions early in the process, based on accounts given. However, it is important to withhold judgment and let the process take its course.
Ask open-ended questions and allow the parties plenty of time to speak. As they do, important details will emerge and the less you disrupt their thought process, the better. Where possible, ask the same questions to each party and exercise the highest degree of fairness to all parties.
Like in previous steps, documenting the conversations and all relevant facts is critical at this stage. Ensure those notes and details are available in a format that can readily be delivered to counsel if the need arises.
7. Consult with an attorney
At this point, you have interviewed all parties and witnesses, you have asses the facts with your leadership team and it is time to make a decision. Unlike a courtroom, there is no jury or judge to do the heavy lifting—the critical decisions fall to you and it can be harrowing to make the call. Some harassment incidents will be clear-cut, even by the aggressor’s own testimony, and in those cases, the next steps will be easier.
The more challenging situations are those that are less clear-cut, contested by multiple parties, or those with contradicting witness input.
Whatever the case, seeking legal counsel before making a harassment-related decision as an employer is always a wise move. At the very least, your attorney will help you avoid running afoul of any federal and state mandates pertinent to handling a harassment case.
Additionally, in complex cases where a judgment might be less clear, your counsel can help you navigate a clearer set of communications and protect the company and the individuals involved as you move forward. Civil suits related to harassment are always a concern, and any early steps you can take to protect the organization from stepping into a vulnerable position is prudent.
8. Apply the company harassment policy based on your findings and recommendations of your counsel
After consulting with your team with legal counsel, decide if the evidence is compelling enough to warrant discipline and employment adjustments. Apply the company policy carefully and fairly, if fault is found with the accused, making sure all work arrangement changes are clearly communicated in writing to the individual.
It is important to remember that making any changes to the accuser’s employment positions, work arrangements or schedule must be voluntarily accepted on their part, and in no way should they be punished or put at a disadvantage as a result of bringing forward the harassment incident. Any voluntary changes along those lines must likewise be captured in writing and signed off by the relevant parties.
While protecting all individual’s privacy, it is wise to take this opportunity to review and reinforce your company harassment policy with all employees. The rumor mill will be in full tilt, despite your best efforts, and slicing through the noise with a level-headed reminder that the team has a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment will help refocus attention on a healthy, forward-looking mindset.
9. Debrief with leadership for lessons learned
Lastly and most importantly, spend some time with your leadership team to analyze what went wrong and what can be done to prevent it in the future. If policy changes are needed, implement them quickly while the incident is fresh.
This is an opportunity to have some honest, face-to-face conversations about the work environment. If gaps are found in leadership, team structure, or culture take steps immediately to shore up those weak spots. Conduct some employee surveys and consider hiring an outside firm to get a grasp on what the team is thinking and experiencing.
Implement harassment training for teams, communication learning opportunities for leadership, and invite feedback from all employees on how the work environment can be made safer and more aligned with company values.
Moving culture challenges to culture opportunities
A harassment incident is trying for everyone and can be extremely taxing on team morale. The weeks and months following internal turmoil often set the cultural tone on a team for a very long time.
Seeing leadership take sure-footed steps to address and improve the work environment is not only encouraging to your team but also validates that the victim’s voice was heard and matters. This, in turn, reinforces the move toward a safer and more egalitarian work culture, which helps expose any other problem areas.
Most importantly, as leadership, accept responsibility that this happened on your watch. It may not feel good and it may take a great deal of humility if you are particularly proud of your team, but nothing communicates care and courage to move forward like leadership who owns their role and is willing to do what is necessary to protect the individuals on their team.