With famous individuals falling like dominoes as allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment continue, business owners should be evaluating their corporate stance on sexual harassment. One problem that confronts business owners is defining exactly what does, and doesn’t, constitute sexual harassment.
Fortunately, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published guidance on this issue, and offers an innovative training program, “Respectful Workplaces,” which teaches skills for employees and supervisors to promote and contribute to respect in the workplace. Training and company policies won’t necessarily protect a business from being embroiled in a lawsuit, but it will aid in their defense. (In case you are wondering, companies and their leadership absolutely can be named as parties in a sexual harassment suit.)
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As with all forms of discrimination under Title VII, it applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Per the EEOC, 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. (To learn more about the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment, click here.)
When investigating sexual harassment allegations, the EEOC looks at the whole record, including the circumstances, the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred.
Areas where employers may run afoul of the EEOC are failure to provide an adequate complaint mechanism or grievance system and failing to take the allegation seriously. Additionally, prevention is the best way to avoid sexual harassment issues in the workplace. Employers should:
- Clearly communicate that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
- Provide a training framework to ensure they have communicated to personnel not only what constitutes sexual harassment but also the mechanism by which employees may seek redress.
- Take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
These measures may seem cumbersome, but they pale in comparison to the legal jeopardy of being named in a sexual harassment suit.