Lots of high-profile cases have caused workplace sexual harassment to be thrust into the spotlight over the last year. Charges against well-known names in the worlds of entertainment, media, and politics rightly showed that no sector was exempt.
The #MeToo hashtag went viral online, giving millions of victims an outlet to share their experiences. Within 24 hours of the storm breaking, over 12 million posts denouncing sexual harassment appeared on social media.
While cases of sexual harassment tend to be perpetrated by men in positions of power, and usually aimed at a female subordinate, the problem isn’t limited to this stereotype. Other recent cases also highlighted that sexual harassment can occur to victims of any gender.
While the entertainment industry is still reeling from the revelations, with the possibility of more still to come, the extraordinary level of response clearly shows how deeply the issue resonates with all people. More recently, the #TIMESUP hashtag has also started to trend, indicating that this is a movement that we won’t be seeing the end of any time soon.
Increasing awareness of what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior has made the average worker more sensitive to the topic, and employers need to be proactive in order to keep their workforce safe, and to mitigate the increased risk of facing a lawsuit for an incident that happened on their watch.
Before you can start to look at ways to protect your employees, you must first fully understand the scope of the problem.
What is inappropriate sexual conduct?
While more extreme sexual advances may be obvious, one thing recent stories has made apparent is just how subtle some forms of sexual harassment can be. Persistent jokes of a sexual nature, sharing inappropriate material, or inappropriate touching is less obvious behavior, but equally as important to monitor and manage.
Any acts that could be considered intimidating, hostile or offensive are not appropriate in the workplace. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this can include:
- A victim of either gender
- A harasser can be a supervisor, agent of the employer, co-worker or non-employee
- The victim doesn’t need to be the direct recipient of the harassment, but anyone affected by the offensive conduct
- Sexual harassment doesn’t need to include the fear of economic injury or discharge
- The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome
Employees are protected from sexual harassment at work by both state and federal laws. The main point of reference is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but many states have laws that are even stricter.
Two categories of harassment
Under Title VII there are two main forms of sexual harassment at work.
Hostile Work Environment:
If any conduct is unwelcome, based on sex, and severe or persistent enough, it can be classed as creating a hostile work environment. Hostile work environment cases often cover a longer period, and establish a pattern of inappropriate conduct. If this is established to be the case, then employers may be liable for damages.
Quid Pro Quo:
This definition covers when a superior directly requires a subordinate employee to tolerate sexual harassment in order to receive or maintain a position or benefit. These are far more likely to be in relation to a single occurrence of harassment.
In either type of case there are many things a court may take into account. They will look at:
- The frequency with which the conduct occurs
- Whether the conduct was patently offensive or hostile
- Who the harasser is in relation to the plaintiff
- Was the conduct verbal, physical, or both?
- Whether the conduct singled out a single person, or whether it was targeted at many, and whether anyone else joined in
Once you understand all the rules surrounding sexual harassment, it’s important to educate and inform your colleagues and staff.
Employers have a responsibility
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment that allows the employee to perform their duties. In order to achieve this, employers need to commit to providing an environment free from sexual harassment and discrimination of any kind. When a complaint or infraction occurs, the employer must take it seriously. There has to be a procedure in place that includes an investigation and disciplinary procedures, where employees can come forward without fear of victimization.
The EEOC say employers have ‘an affirmative duty’ to eliminate sexual abuse from the workplace. For most employers this will require adopting new methods and processes, and a proactive approach towards the problem.
What has changed for the average employer?
An increased awareness of the issues surrounding sexual harassment, and a reduced fear about reporting incidents is expected to lead to an increase in the number of cases employers have to deal with. Smart employers will be one step ahead, mitigating potential threats to their employees, while at the same time reducing the risk of lawsuits. Taking steps to outwardly show your position on sexual harassment will serve two purposes;
- It helps to reassure employees you take the matter seriously and, and provides an environment where they shouldn’t have to suffer inappropriate advances or intimidating behavior.
- It also helps to educate employees about what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace.
Start a conversation
A frank and honest internal discussion is an important tool in tackling any potential issues. Not only does it help to make employees aware of co-workers perspectives, but it will also help to foster an open environment around the topic. This can help to dispel any fear of reprisals held by employees who report an occurrence, as while employer retaliation is illegal, many employees are still worried about repercussions as a result of speaking out.
An increased awareness of other perspectives helps employees to spot a potentially inappropriate situation, and speak up to shut down the harassment before it occurs.
Address potentially gray areas
What constitutes inappropriate conduct can be a lot less obvious than some employees may realise. For instance, a congratulatory hug could be deemed offensive, especially if the person doing the hugging is a superior. Inappropriate touching is a contributing factor to a hostile work environment, and even if a gesture is made in complete innocence, it doesn’t mean the person on the receiving end feels the same way.
You can even discuss the best processes to implement after an incident has been reported. Should the first course of action be to inform the harasser his/her actions are offensive or inappropriate? How should it escalate? Discuss every aspect of the process with your workforce, as the more invested they are in the topic, the more aware they will be.
A study by the Harvard Business Review has shown a disparity between how often men and women think sexual harassment in the workplaces occurs. The most obvious reason for this is that women are more often on the receiving end, so are more sensitive to potentially inappropriate behavior.
Intruding into someone’s personal space when talking to them, telling dirty jokes, making comments about a person’s appearance, asking questions about a co-worker’s personal life or making requests to meet outside of work can all be intimidating if unwelcome.
How can you mitigate the risks without spending a fortune?
All of the new processes, procedures, and education of employees carry a potentially huge cost for employers. While the implementation of all of the above is vital, for many organizations the cost could be too much for them to stand.
Thankfully, there are already systems available that address nearly all of an employer’s compliance needs, while keeping the costs to a minimum. A third-party solution, such as TotalCompliance from ComplianceBridge, provides:
- The ability to record employee acknowledgement of all policies for protection against compliance audits. Do you have a record that all employees have read, understand and acknowledged your sexual harassment policy?
- Because you are not required to spend on any additional hardware, updates, or configuring an internal system, using TotalCompliance is as hassle free as it gets.
- A cloud-based solution allows people to connect from any internet-enabled device, from anywhere in the world, whenever they need to.
- High levels of automation and a streamlined workflow make collaboration, creation, review, approval, distribution, and the reporting process easy. Automated reminders, notifications and escalation increase the efficiency of the service, and help to automatically enforce the response process.
All of the above not only helps you to implement new processes and educate your staff for far less than creating your own internal systems, it provides you with the support of a proven company that already provide these services to companies all over the world.
Is a third-party solution as good as creating an in-house developed solution?
As well as considerable savings over the cost of creating and maintaining internal systems, you have the added peace of mind knowing that the software simply works. It’s fit for purpose, and flexible enough to be tailored to suit your needs.
The potential costs associated with not just creating a custom solution, but then going through many rounds of refinement and bug fixing, are considerably greater.
Here are just some of the ways TotalCompliance can help you to manage sexual harassment, and other risk and compliance issues, within your organisation in an efficient and intuitive way:
Real time user reports – Being cloud-based, the system allows you to instantly see respondent’s answers in full. It also gives you the ability to easily export the data for use in presentations, analytical tools, or other applications. The simple dashboard allows you to oversee the processes through detailed graphics.
Fully customizable – Assessments can be designed to specifically suit your needs. Respondents can be given multiple choice, yes/no answers, a rating scale, or areas to write a full answer. Some questions can be conditional, so respondents don’t waste time skipping questions that aren’t relevant to them. Group respondents into categories, defined however you decide, to target specific departments with assessments relevant to only them.
Usable automation and delegation – You can grant individuals or groups the right to reassign questions, while you retain the ability to monitor exactly who is delegating what and who the respondents are. You can create an assessment using a streamlined and automated process, which rapidly speeds up every part of the process, from creation and review, to distribution and escalation.
Not only do all of these features make managing risk more cost effective and efficient, but they also allow you to spot potential problems sooner, addressing issues before they escalate further.
Cloud based software maximizes accessibility. You can use any device to access the software, and it’s always on.
Why choose ComplianceBridge?
Our team is made up of highly experienced individuals from a range of disciplines. We ensure we have all the knowledge in-house to cover all business, regulatory, and compliance issues. With over 100 years combined experience, when you partner with us you access a wealth of knowledge.
We have spent more than a decade researching and developing our TotalCompliance solution. Our aim is to make the most cost-effective solution also the best choice. In order to achieve this, we have leveraged our long-term customer relationships to constantly improve our products. In fact, we view our clients as long-term partners and friends.
Being located in Silicon Valley has given us access to the latest technologies and best developers. This helps us to ensure our security is a tight as it can be, ensuring your privacy is maintained. We continually work hard to maintain and improve our security, even holding regular ‘Hacker attack’ tests to identify and minimize any potential risks.
Our mission, expertise and experience all combine to create market-leading products that are flexible, cost effective, and easy to use.
Our pricing is equally as flexible as our software, allowing you to pay just for a predefined number of required users, or even opt to only pay for users who log in and use the system within the billing period. This keeps costs to a minimum when usage is lighter, which is especially helpful if your market has a seasonal aspect.
Simply put, we are the best at what we do, and we’re always striving to be better.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Harvard Business Review