These days, accounts of alleged sexual misconduct are prevalent in the media and are often referred to in catchy headlines as “sexual harassment.” Legally speaking, “sexual harassment” can take two forms in the workplace: Hostile work environment harassment (unwelcome sexual conduct or communication based on one’s gender, and which substantially interferes with employment or creates an offensive work environment), and quid pro quo harassment (making an employment benefit contingent on accepting sexual advances).
The following are important steps employers can take to reduce the possibility of becoming part of the news cycle:
- Adopt clear harassment prevention policies. Employee handbooks should include detailed policies: (1) identifying impermissible conduct and setting forth disciplinary consequences; (2) outlining procedures for submitting complaints; (3) confirming that complaints will be investigated; and (4) making clear that retaliation against anyone who complains about harassing conduct will not be tolerated.
- Mandate sexual harassment training. Employers should consider periodically requiring group training sessions. In addition to their educational and preventative functions, trainings convey to the workforce that the company is committed to maintaining a positive and professional workplace.
- Beware of out-of-work parties and other functions. Off-site gatherings can present dangers for employers – especially when alcohol is involved. Employers should ensure that safeguards are in place to help prevent a nasty “hangover” in the form of harassment complaints.
- Investigate complaints. Employers are generally liable for bad actions of supervisors. However, employers can minimize legal exposure by promptly investigating complaints and disciplining employees found to have engaged in improper conduct.
- Avoid inadvertently increasing legal exposure. When informed about a harassment complaint, some business owners may instinctively feel compelled to apologize. Although contrition is sometimes appropriate, employers should be aware that an apology can be used as an admission in court. For this same reason, employers should refer to the specific conduct alleged rather than label it “sexual harassment,” which is a legal conclusion that can undermine an employer’s position.
The increased national focus on sexual improprieties underscores the importance of working proactively to curb sexual misconduct in the workplace. Call Wright Beamer at (248) 477-6300 today if you have any questions or need assistance.