How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Prevent Sexual Harassment by Policies and a Positive Workplace Culture

Woman responding to unwanted contact
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Sexual Harassment Is Discrimination

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment occurs when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to another employee against his or her wishes.

According to an issues ​report update from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment occurs, "when submission to or rejection of 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."

Sexual harassment, even in simple forms such as sharing pornographic material via email or calling a coworker, "dear," can cause significant tension and uneasiness among coworkers in the workplace. This is because, regardless of the nature of the harassment, it creates a situation that a coworker—with discomfort—must address.

Examples of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of situations. These are examples of sexual harassment, not intended to be all-inclusive but to provide guidance as you assess a work situation.

  • Unwanted jokes, gestures, offensive words on clothing, and unwelcome comments and repartee that is sexual in nature.
  • Touching and any other bodily contact or near contact such as scratching or patting a coworker's back, grabbing an employee around the waist, kissing an employee, hugging an employee, or interfering with an employee's ability to move, such as blocking their ability to get up from their chair.
  • Repeated requests for dates or other get-togethers that are turned down or unwanted flirting.
  • Transmitting or posting emails or pictures of a sexual or other harassment-related nature.
  • Watching pornography or other suggestive material online or on smartphones even if the employee who is watching is situated in a private office.
  • Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures, or posters in the workplace.
  • Playing sexually suggestive music.

What to Do If an Employee Reports Sexual Harassment

When an employee complains to a supervisor, another employee, or the Human Resources office, about sexual harassment, an immediate investigation of the charge should occur. Supervisors should immediately involve the Human Resources staff.

Employees need to understand that they have an obligation to report sexual harassment concerns to their supervisor, manager or the Human Resources office. Only when your HR staff knows what is going on can they effectively address sexual harassment at work.

In the existing cultural environment, many accusations of past sexual harassment up to and including rape have been leveled at prominent people. They bear commonalities. Frequently, the abuser is a man with a powerful position from which he can negatively affect the careers of those who refuse the harasser's requests.

Secondly, for a variety of reasons, the harassed individuals have not requested help from the HR departments or managers of these powerful people. Hopefully, the result of these people coming forward will be to discourage sexual harassment in workplaces. Note also though, that while the current charges are truly egregious, all workplace sexual harassment is morally, ethically, and legally wrong—no matter the scale of the accusations.

Policies to Prevent and Address Sexual Harassment

Your employee policy handbook needs the following policies.

  • Sexual Harassment Policy
  • General Harassment Policy
  • Policy about how sexual harassment (and other harassment allegations) investigations are conducted in your company
  • A policy that forbids an employee in a supervisory role from dating a reporting employee and that details the steps required should a relationship form

Workplace non-fraternization policies need to recognize that the workplace is one of the logical locations for people to meet and fall in love, as long as the employees engaged in the relationship follow common-sense guidelines.

However, as a manager or supervisor dating your reporting staff is never appropriate. You are always in a superior position over the people whose work you manage and whose career advancement you affect.

After creating these policies, you need to train all employees on the ways to prevent sexual harassment and how to report sexual harassment when it occurs.

Role of Managers in Sexual Harassment Prevention and Investigation

Managers and supervisors are on the front lines when it comes to managing employee performance and needs from work. First, and most importantly, you do not want a workplace culture that allows any form of harassment to occur. Out of your commitment to your employees and your company, harassment, in any form, is never to be tolerated.

As an employer, demonstrating that you took appropriate steps following a sexual harassment complaint is crucial. In fact, demonstrating that you took immediate action and that the consequences for the perpetrator were severe, is also critical. The front line leader is usually the person initiating and following through on those steps, so they have to feel confident about what they are doing.

They and HR also need to remember that not all charges of sexual harassment actually occurred. Innocent people have been wrongly accused and convicted of sexual harassment in the workplace. So, be careful that you don't rush to get justice for the purported victim of sexual harassment and carefully investigate all claims.

Any form of harassment can create a hostile work environment including sexual harassment and how it is addressed. The court's definition of what constitutes a hostile work environment has expanded to coworkers who are caught up in the sexual harassment situation, too.

As you think about sexual harassment and other forms of harassment in your workplace, keep these facts in mind.

  • The employee harassing another employee can be an individual of the same sex. Sexual harassment does not imply that the perpetrator is of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the employee's supervisor, manager, customer, coworker, supplier, peer, or vendor. Any individual who is connected to the employee's work environment can be accused of sexual harassment.
  • The victim of sexual harassment is not just the employee who is the target of the harassment. Other employees who observe or learn about sexual harassment can also be the victims and institute charges. Anyone who is affected by the conduct can potentially complain of sexual harassment. For example, if a supervisor is engaged in a sexual relationship with a reporting staff member, other staff can claim harassment if they believe the supervisor treated his or her lover differently than they were treated.
  • In the organization's sexual harassment policy, advise the potential victims that, if they experience harassment, they should tell the perpetrator to stop, that the advances or other unwanted behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Sexual harassment can occur even when the complainant cannot demonstrate any adverse impact on his or her employment including transfers, discharge, salary decreases, and so on.
  • When an individual experiences sexual harassment, they should use the complaint system and recommended procedures as spelled out in the sexual harassment policy of their employer. The investigation should be conducted as spelled out in the handbook.
  • The employer has the responsibility to take each complaint of sexual harassment seriously and investigate.
  • Following the investigation of the harassment complaint, no retaliation is permitted, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The employer must in no way treat the employee who filed the complaint differently than other employees are treated nor change his or her prior-to-the-complaint treatment. If it is determined that the employee lied, however, disciplinary action is necessary against the employee who was not truthful.

The Bottom Line

If you are an employee who believes that you are experiencing sexual harassment, you must complain to the proper authority in your company. This allows the employer to swiftly investigate the charges, take appropriate disciplinary action when warranted, and allows you to once again experience the comfortable, respectful workplace you deserve to have.