The best sexual harassment policy sets up many ways for employees to lodge complaints.
Here’s why: Sometimes low-level supervisors don’t take harassment as seriously as they should. They may brush off complaints as insignificant or ignore them altogether. If your sexual harassment policy tells employees to complain to their bosses without offering an alternative, they could become frustrated or angry. Plus, the alleged offensive behavior could very well escalate.
The answer is to let all employees know they can safely go outside their chain of command to report alleged harassment.
For example, allow employees to go directly to HR. Then offer an alternative if the employee isn’t satisfied with HR’s response. You may even want to let employees know they can go to the highest level, such as the CEO or company owner. Of course, you can specify that employees try other avenues first.
The point is that, by providing multiple ways to complain, you are clearly indicating to employees that you take harassment seriously.
An added benefit: Courts are beginning to expect frustrated employees to try at least one alternate avenue before giving up and heading to the courthouse.
Recent case: Lucy Cross worked for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino as a valet. When she complained to her shift supervisor that a co-worker had pulled her hair, the supervisor just told the shift valets to stop the horseplay and dismissed her complaint.
On another occasion, Cross complained that the same co-worker had brushed against her breast while pretending to remove something from her shirt. Then she said he had asked if they could be more than friends and got angry when she said no. Finally, Cross said the co-worker had spread a rumor that she performed oral sex on him. This time, she complained to a different shift supervisor.
That supervisor went to HR, which investigated and fired the co-worker for other misconduct. Cross never returned to work—but she did sue.
Prairie Meadows told the court it had an extensive sexual harassment policy that included many ways for employees to complain. For example, speaking to a supervisor was one avenue. Others included going directly to HR and as high as the CEO if HR didn’t act or the employee didn’t agree with HR’s conclusion.
The court sided with Prairie Meadows, concluding that Cross knew about the policy and simply didn’t use the additional avenues. (Cross v. Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, No. 09-3427, 8th Cir., 2010)
Final note: Of course, you must train lower-level supervisors on sexual harassment. That’s especially true for new supervisors who come up through the ranks and may not have much experience in HR matters. They may be tempted to brush aside complaints, fearful that forwarding them to HR will somehow reflect poorly on their ability to manage. They reason that the best approach is to take care of the problem directly by telling the parties to stop or offering other ineffective advice.
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