Workplace harassment — in particular, sexual harassment in the work environment — has yet to fade into the past. For example, recent allegations of employee sexual harassment surfaced at Uber, prompting an investigation of an alleged hostile work environment to be led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
In two studies noted by The Daily Campus, one in three women (in a survey of more than 2,000 women between the ages of 18-34) "reported experiencing sexual harassment, and 71 percent of those women declined to report it." According to a PwC survey of more than 25,000 women, 52 percent reported incidences of workplace bullying and harassment.
Evidently, the message has yet to reach all U.S. businesses that not only is workplace harassment bad for a company's culture and reputation, it is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to harass a person because of their gender. The definition of sexual harassment encompasses unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, as well as offensive remarks about a person's gender.
Businesses should also be aware of state laws prohibiting harassment, which they may be obliged to comply with as well.
If your company hasn't come to terms with the potential for workplace harassment, this should become an immediate HR priority. Here are five proactive ways to help prevent harassment in the workplace that you can implement, starting today:
1. Establish a clear-cut, zero-tolerance, anti-harassment policy.
Working with your HR department, craft a comprehensive, easy-to-understand anti-workplace harassment and anti-discrimination policy covering all employees. Be sure to include guidance from your company’s legal counsel in order to ensure the policy fully complies with local, state, and federal laws and regulations.
2. Institute training and awareness programs for your employees.
It's critical that everyone throughout the organization understands why an anti-workplace harassment policy is needed and how they can report a concerning situation. Establish a training program in which all employees must participate and schedule it on a regular basis, at least once or twice a year. This training can include:
- What constitutes acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior
- How to recognize when sexual harassment takes place
- Steps to take to report inappropriate behavior
"Just because a comment or action doesn't bother you doesn't mean it won't offend others around you," says Melissa L. Wheeler, Human Resources Consultant with Paychex HR Solutions. "It's not the intent that matters, it's the impact your actions have on the recipient."
3. Create specialized training for managers and supervisors.
Obviously, those people in charge of managing employees should behave impeccably in all workplace situations. Equally important, they must be skilled in recognizing when harassment occurs and making clear such behavior can't be tolerated under any circumstances. This includes being trained sufficiently so they are aware of (and know how to respond to) complaints of harassment, as well as understanding that either men or women can instigate or become a victim of illegal or highly inappropriate behavior. (In some states, such training is mandatory.)
4. Build a culture where harassment is unlikely to take place.
Business leaders have an obligation to mold and enforce a culture where managers and employees behave professionally at all times, including offsite and off-hour gatherings. In such a culture, demeaning or intimidating actions or offensive "humor" have no place, and those in charge assume the responsibility of continuously communicating their dedication to ensuring work in an environment free of harassment.
5. Ensure everyone understands the process for reporting a complaint.
At staff meetings and in your employee handbook, clearly lay out the process for filing a complaint of inappropriate behavior. Also, make sure everyone understands that each complaint is taken very seriously and that an investigation will take place when necessary.
With the commitment of leaders and senior staff, it's possible to establish a workplace environment in which unwelcome advances and other harassing behavior never take place – or are swiftly handled, as need be. In the end, your employees will feel safer and your business will be less likely to suffer the damage to its reputation that may come with claims of harassment in the form of a hostile work environment.