It is, of course, employers’ expectation that when an individual enters the workplace, he or she will show the same level of respect for their workplace colleagues that they would expect to receive themselves.
However, in addition to that ‘expectation’, there are also very clear laws that govern the way men and women conduct themselves in a workplace environment; laws pertaining to sexual harassment are among those regulations, and on the federal level they are overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Under Title VII of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin or sex.”
However, the EEOC points out that workplace sexual harassment is also forbidden, and subject to penalty of law.
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as being “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” But under federal law, sexual harassment does not have to be of a “sexual nature”, and can be defined by what is deemed to be an “offensive remark” about a person’s sex.
It’s also important to remember that the law applies equally to both men and women, and that someone defined as the ‘harasser’ does not have to be a member of the opposite sex.
Of course, as with any laws pertaining to human interaction, the lines that define ‘sexual harassment’ are not always clearly marked, and are sometimes a subject of much debate. Even the EEOC acknowledges this fact, stating that sexual harassment laws don’t prohibit “simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious.”
According to the EEOC, the “line in the sand”—such as it is—under federal sexual harassment law is when incidents become frequent or severe enough to create a “hostile or offensive” workplace environment; the other scenario defining sexual harassment is when the incident(s) result in affecting the person’s employment situation (such as being fired, or demoted.)
The ‘harasser’s’ status is very broadly defined, and he/she can be either the victim’s supervisor, or supervisor of another department within the company; the harasser can also be a non-employee, such as a client or customer of the company.
As an employer, it is both good business sense—as well as your responsibility under the law—to do what you can to prevent workplace sexual harassment. There are several basic measures that an employer can—and should—take in order to ensure a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. These would include:
Create and institute a clear, concise sexual harassment policy for your company
Clearly define “sexual harassment” for employees so as to avoid as much confusion as possible
State unequivocally that, as an employer, you will not tolerate sexual harassment among your employee
Set up clearly defined procedures regarding the filing of any sexual harassment complaints
Clearly define the penalties that will be instituted for those found to be sexual harassers, and state that there will be a no tolerance policy of any retaliatory measures against accusers
Ensure that it is clear that the company intends to investigate any allegations of sexual harassment among employees
Provide employees training on prevention of sexual harassment; use these sessions to ensure there are no questions regarding your company’s sexual harassment policy
Consider providing separate, additional training for supervisors and managers, as they will play a vital role in ensuring your company’s sexual harassment prevention policy succeeds.
The workplace environment—and the individuals who occupy it—constitute a key component in shaping both your company’s reputation and its long-term prospects.
However, remember that spending the requisite time and effort to prevent workplace sexual harassment is more than just a wise investment—it’s also the law.