Nora Akins

More than a million people have shared their Twitter posts since Alyssa Milano encouraged survivors of sexual harassment and assault to publicly post their #MeToo status this past October. The last time sexual harassment came to the forefront was when Anita Hill spoke out about Clarence Thomas in 1991 at his televised Senate confirmation hearing. Even though Thomas joined the Supreme Court; Hill’s testimony is credited for a dramatic increase in sexual harassment complaints with the EEOC. Companies should anticipate history to repeat.

When a disaster hits the news, especially local news, employees should be reminded of the company’s position and plan. It makes employees feel safe and assured that the company is looking out for their well-being. Think of #MeToo and the flood of high-profile sexual harassment allegations like tornado season. Now is the time for companies to speak; reinforce the policy.

The first step is to understand what the law protects. Understand quid pro quo, hostile work environment, the range of behavior described as sexual favors and understand harassment need not be sexual; it may be offensive remarks about a particular sex. Title VII is not a general civility code and one incident of bad behavior is not generally harassment. However, defining and improving civility in the workplace has only positive outcomes including improved retention and productivity.

Next, review your existing policy and complaint procedure. Your policy should prohibit all forms of harassment based on any protected class, including sex; require employees to report harassment and provide several avenues to communicate; and demonstrate an obligation to prohibit retaliation against employees who make a complaint or support others who come forward regardless of the outcome. A victim of sexual harassment is often reluctant to come forward, uncomfortable talking about the incident and fears retaliation from the alleged harasser and others.

The EEOC has recently issued guidance on Title VII training which includes training all employees on what employees should do, in addition to what behaviors are prohibited. Training should include discrimination, harassment, reporting, and retaliation. Companies should review their training to ensure supervisors will efficiently handle and escalate complaints, and take action when they witness or are subject to harassment. Supervisors should be held accountable to enforce and abide by the company’s policy and procedure.

The next step is ensuring the company has professionals trained in conducting thorough and effective investigations. When selecting an investigator for a sexual harassment allegation, consider who is involved and the nature of the allegation. The investigator should be tailored to the circumstances and people involved. It is often a good idea to hire an external investigator, especially when management is involved. This can immediately demonstrate good faith. The company should be prepared to take appropriate remedial action including termination of employment against those who perpetuate or knowingly permit harassment to occur.

Sexual harassment not only affects the company’s reputation and brand; it affects the victim, co-workers and the culture. Companies who prevent harassment through ongoing training and vigilance maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or nora@managepeopleright.com.

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