5 steps you must take to prevent and address sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here’s how the EEOC defines sexual harassment:

“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.”

In 2012, the EEOC received 7,571 complaints from workers alleging they were sexual harassment victims (17.8% of whom were men) and recovered $43 million for har­­assed workers.

Don’t let your organization add to those statistics. Take these steps to prevent and address sexual harassment:

1. Create a policy prohibiting sexual harassment of any kind. Write your policy broadly, in gender-neutral terms, so it applies to everyone, regardless of the sex of the alleged harasser and the victim. (See box below for what it should include.) Communicate the policy to all employees, regardless of their level on the org chart.

2. Establish a complaint procedure. Provide the names and phone numbers of contact people (preferably of both genders) to whom workers can report misconduct. Specify who will investigate and decide the outcome of a complaint. Set a time frame to process and resolve complaints quickly and fairly. Decide how appeals will be handled. Guarantee confidentiality.

3. Institute investigative procedures. Take every sexual harassment complaint seriously and investigate it promptly. You’ll need to interview the accused, the accuser and poten­­tial witnesses. Conduct all interviews privately to safeguard confidentiality. Establish systems to gather and record evidence. Treat all parties with dignity and respect. During the investigation, consider issuing a gag order prohibiting anyone from discussing the alleged harassment.

4. Enforce your policy. If your investigation confirms sexual harassment, notify the involved parties and decide on disciplinary action. Depending on the harasser’s work record and the gravity of the charge, you may decide on an oral or written warning, a deferral of a raise or promotion, a demotion, suspension or discharge.

Be fair in your judgment, and evenly apply your disciplinary actions. Make sure you have all the necessary documentation to back up any disciplinary action. Keep all records in one file so they will be easily accessible if the victim or harasser decides to sue.

5. Conduct anti-harassment training. Use these sessions to communicate your policy, answer questions and give employees detailed information about how to identify, respond to and prevent sexual harassment.

Elements of a good anti-harassment policy

Ensure that your sexual harassment policy:

  • Broadly defines conduct that constitutes sexual harassment, plus specific examples
  • States that offenders will be subject to appropriate discipline, up to discharge
  • Encourages employees who feel victimized by sexual harassment to report it
  • Requires employees and supervisors to report any offensive conduct they experience or witness.
  • Provides assurance that there will be no retaliation against employees who report harassment
  • Promises that all sexual harassment reports will be promptly and thoroughly investigated, and that remedial action will be taken if harassment has occurred.