More than a decade after creating their first sexual harassment policies, some employers may be getting lax. That might be especially true if they haven’t received any complaints. Sure, they may have updated the handbook and conducted a little training. But other issues have always seemed more important.
If that rosy scenario sounds like your organization, you might be courting trouble. Now is a great time to revisit your sexual harassment policies and practices.
Start by reviewing your handbook. Is the anti-harassment material stuck in the back of the book? Consider moving it up front. Is any of the contact information employees need to report harassment out-of-date? Fix that.
Then look at your training programs. Have all employees—new hires and veteran workers alike—received recent sexual harassment training? Check each employee file and schedule new sessions for those who haven’t recently attended a session. Reconfirm your commitment to a harassment-free workplace by placing notices in the employee newsletter and on paystubs.
Reinforce that everyone has a responsibility to report harassing behavior. Managers and supervisors in particular must report harassment immediately. It’s part of their job.
Finally, make sure you have processes to quickly and definitively investigate harassment allegations.
Recent case: North Carolina state government employee Angela Walton said her working conditions were intolerable. She claimed her supervisor exposed his penis to her, rubbed his crotch against her shoulders and grabbed her hand and placed it between his legs. This allegedly went on for two months.
Walton also claimed workplace banter was full of sexual innuendo. She didn’t, however, tell anyone other than co-workers about her concerns until she finally went to her supervisor’s boss and told her.
The supervisor denied exposing himself, but claimed he had a medical problem that caused frequent erections. He was encouraged to resign and did.
Walton quit anyway—and then she sued.
In court, the state agency explained its sexual harassment policy. First, it had a clear, written policy that described sexual harassment and instructed employees to report any problems within 30 days to either HR or the EEOC. Walton knew about the policy because she had recently undergone updated training on sexual harassment.
The court dismissed Walton’s case. It reasoned that the agency had done everything it was required to do, while Walton had not done what she could have done.
The agency had a clear and readily available sexual harassment policy that provided employees with harassment examples and encouraged quick reporting that bypassed supervisors. It even told employees they could file an EEOC complaint if they chose.
Plus, it regularly trained employees on sexual harassment, including Walton. The agency also took definitive action once Walton told someone in authority what was going on. That action—getting the supervisor to quit—was designed to stop the harassment immediately and was effective.
Finally, the court said Walton should have complained immediately after the first incident as the policy encouraged, instead of remaining silent or talking only to her co-workers about the problem. (Walton v. North Carolina Department of Agriculture, No. 5:09-CV-302, ED NC, 2011)
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