Last month The New Yorker published a story detailing years of claimed sexual harassment and misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, it seems that every day features new allegations of similarly inappropriate behavior by public figures, from actors, to authors, to public radio executives. It is unclear whether this is a long- or short-term trend. It is, however, an opportune time for employers to review their own policies and procedures in place to prevent and respond to claims of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment policies should be clear and unambiguous as to what is not appropriate for the workplace. They should prohibit unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Policies should also make it clear that submission to such conduct must not be an implicit or explicit condition of employment, that response to such conduct will not serve as a basis for continued employment, and that such conduct will not be permitted to interfere with an employee’s work. In sum, the goal of any policy should be to clearly prohibit both specific harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.
An effective policy must go beyond prohibiting demands for sexual favors or inappropriate physical touching at work. Actions such as sexually-oriented “jokes” or “teasing” should not be permitted in the workplace. Offensive flirtations, repeated verbal abuse of a sexual nature, degrading comments about appearance, and the display of sexually suggestive or explicit materials must also be clearly banned. Employers should also clearly state that subtle pressure for sexual activity, physical contact or blocking of movement are also inappropriate.
These prohibitions, however, do not mean employees cannot have friendly interactions. Indeed, we recommend including a caveat that the policy does not consider things like occasional socially acceptable compliments or consensual social relationships as harassment. The stated goal of the policy should be to eliminate unwelcomed, intimidating, hostile, or offensive behavior. It should also be noted that the policy applies to and protects employees of all genders.
As important as a strong anti-sexual harassment policy is, there must also be a complete procedure for enforcing it. This procedure should have at least two reporting mechanisms. The first should be what would be considered the “normal” reporting mechanism, an employee, position or department designated to receive complaints of harassment and investigate. There also needs to be a secondary reporting mechanism for when normal person is either the subject of the complaint or in a position where investigation may be too difficult. For example, if the normal investigator is the head of HR and the accused is her second-in-command, then the secondary reporting mechanism would be best to use. The goal is for an impartial, objective investigation to occur – not one that is just impartial, but also one that is properly perceived as impartial too.
The complaint procedure should also guarantee as much confidentiality as possible. Victims, witnesses, and those who report harassment should be assured their information will be kept as confidential as possible while still conducting a thorough investigation. They should also know that non-frivolous complaints will not result in discipline. So, if they report behavior in a good-faith belief that it violates the sexual harassment policy there will be no negative consequences even if the investigation cannot substantiate the claim. In contrast, complaints made in bad faith, to retaliate or harass, or to otherwise abuse the system should not be tolerated.
Every investigation into a complaint or possible situation of harassment must be thorough, objective, and unbiased. Investigators must seek out and interview witnesses. They should make it clear that neither the complainant nor the accused should have any inappropriate contact with the witnesses during the investigation. Investigators should also seek any documentation, video surveillance, or other tangible evidence of the alleged events available to them. All reasonable steps should be pursued to try to get as clear of a picture as possible as to what truly happened.
Lastly, the policy should clearly define the consequences of such unacceptable behavior. Recommended action for substantiated violations can range from a simple written warning all the way up to and including termination – whatever is necessary to stop the behavior and ensure it is not repeated and the victim (and others) are not at further risk. It should also be made clear that while discipline for violations of the policy may be progressive, the employer reserves the right to implement whatever punishment it deems appropriate, including termination.
Employers know that sexual harassment is a serious issue and should not be tolerated in any workplace. Beyond the civil liability it may bring, it makes a workplace undesirable and saps employee morale. It can hurt a company’s brand, reputation and standing in the business community. This general outline as to how such policies and procedures should work is a start, but smart employers will reach out to counsel to review and update their policies and procedures and make sure they are never the subject of any similar negative headline news articles.