In recent weeks, stories of sexual harassment against women in the entertainment industry have been widely reported. However, sexual harassment is an issue facing every worker in every industry (as evidenced by the overwhelming number of #MeToo social media postings). It has always been crucial for employers to understand their obligations and options with regard to responding to complaints of sexual harassment; now is a good time to take another look.
How you as an employer respond (or fail to respond) in these situations can dramatically impact the continuance or mitigation of sexual harassment both at work and in society, as well as impact whether your company will face lawsuits and civil penalties. Therefore, it behooves you to know what to do when it comes to sexual harassment claims in the workplace.
Clearly state your policies in your handbook
One effective way to protect your workers from sexual harassment (as well as yourself from legal claims) is to clearly define anti-harassment policies in your employee handbook. Include types of misconduct that will not be tolerated as well as instructions for how an employee should report harassment, and to whom.
Investigate every claim
Failing to properly investigate a claim of sexual harassment can spark a lawsuit. Employers should, therefore, investigate every claim earnestly. Utilize a trained investigator who can be objective, and be prepared to interview the employee as well as the alleged harasser and any witnesses.
Do not retaliate
It is illegal to retaliate against an employee who files a sexual harassment complaint. With this in mind, employers should not relocate, reduce hours, change shifts, or otherwise penalize the complaining employee. However, if necessary, action can--and often should--be taken against the alleged harasser to remove that person from easy access to the complainant. Limiting the amount of contact the two parties might otherwise have is a good first step until the investigation is complete.
Take appropriate action
After examining the complaint, make a reasonable and fair decision about the course of action the situation demands. Take into consideration the nature of the harassment as well as any consequences issued in similar situations in the past. If you cannot reach a firm conclusion one way or the other, then explain the inconclusive findings to the employees involved.
Keeping track of emails, witness statements, and other documentation related to what you (the employer) knew and when you knew it can all be critical to protecting yourself should the complainant or the harasser decide to pursue a lawsuit against the company.
Talk to an attorney
It is important to understand your responsibilities as an employer with regard to federal and state harassment laws. Working with an attorney can help you make informed decisions, avoid costly legal battles and protect your workers from misconduct.