Employers cannot afford to ignore the problem of sexual harassment. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 12,860 allegations of sex-based harassment. This figure does not include claims filed with state or local agencies, nor does it include cases that never resulted in a formal charge. In other words, the actual occurrence of harassment can be assumed to be much higher.
This isn’t a new problem, but it’s recently gained spotlight with a flood of high-profile cases dominating the headlines. The New York Times maintains a list of men who have been fired, forced to resign or faced other consequences as a result of sexual harassment allegations. As of December 13, 42 men have made the ignoble list, including Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and multiple politicians.
When sexual harassment occurs, it hurts both the target of the harassment and the company.
- Victims of sexual harassment may feel hurt, angry or afraid. This can impact their work or cause them to quit. Witnesses of harassment may suffer reduced morale as well.
- The company’s reputation can suffer, making it more difficult for the company to attract new talent or customers.
- The company may face legal action.
To protect both the company and the employees, employers must act.
A Professional Environment
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as “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.”
Sexual harassment can include unwanted touching, pressure to go on a date or discussion of sexual topics, even when done in a casual or joking manner. In a workplace where such behavior is common, the environment will seem hostile to many employees. The employer has a responsibility to foster a professional office culture.
Policies and Training
Every employer needs a written policy on sexual harassment. The policy should include a clear definition of what qualifies as sexual harassment, with examples. The policy should also explicitly prohibit all forms of sexual harassment. In addition, the reporting procedure and consequences for misconduct should be clear.
Although having a written policy is a good start, companies may need to provide sexual harassment training as well. In some states, this may be legally required. For example, California law states that supervisors at companies with 50 or more employees must receive sexual harassment training.
It’s important to remember, however, that sexual harassment does not always come from supervisors. A poll conducted by Fairygodboss found that young co-workers were common perpetrators.
Responding to Allegations
When allegations are made, the employer must respond appropriately. This means that all complaints must be taken seriously, not dismissed as an overreaction, and the accuser must not face retaliation.
An investigation into the allegations should be prompt and thorough. If misconduct is revealed, the consequences should be immediate and consistent.
All companies want to avoid the next sexual harassment scandal, but not all will. While good policies and procedures help, the right coverage can provide another layer of protection. Contact us to learn about Employment Practices Liability insurance.