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The 3 things NOT to say in your sexual-harassment policy

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Issue: The words you leave out of your sexual-harassment policy are as important as those you put in.

Risk: Imprecise, or too precise, wording can paint you into a corner if you're sued for harassment.

Action: Define "harassment" broadly, and don't make promises you may not be able to keep.

You're always being lectured on what to include in your sexual-harassment policy, but what about the stuff you should leave out?

Some judges interpret policies, including those on sexual harassment, as enforceable contracts between employer and employee. To prevent charges that you didn't live up to your side of the bargain in your sexual-harassment policy, don't:

1. Guarantee confidentiality. You can't ensure that information about employees' complaints will remain completely secure.

When investigating charges, you need to interview witnesses and talk to the alleged harasser. While you can urge them not to talk about the investigation, they often will. Make sure that employees understand the limits to which confidentiality extends.

2. Set strict limits on what constitutes harassment. Don't phrase your policy in such a way that employees might infer that any behaviors not described have your seal of approval.

You can't begin to list everything that might be considered inappropriate conduct, so don't try. (In one case, an employee complained that her boss dropped a chocolate candy down her blouse, then tried to retrieve it. How could you have written that into a policy?) That's why it's best to provide general guidelines regarding what constitutes sexual harassment.

You can draft a policy with an attorney's help or quote the EEOC's definition verbatim (see www.eeoc.gov/types/sexual_ harassment.html). Include a statement that says harassment "is not limited to" the examples you've cited.

3. Promise to resolve complaints to the victim's satisfaction. Be especially careful not to imply that every complaint will result in disciplinary action. Simply promise that complaints will be treated seriously.

Some complaints won't have merit or you won't be able to substantiate them. Either way, the alleged victim may not be happy with the result. Don't let the person add a "breach of contract" claim simply because your policy promises to solve the problem to the person's satisfaction.

For more advice on harassment policies, plus a sample policy that you can use, access Preventing Sexual Harassment: A Business Guide at www.hrspecialist.net/harassment.

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