The Complex Issue of Sexual Harassment Claims in the Workplace

The #MeToo movement has brought renewed attention to an issue that has been of serious concern to employers for decades: workplace sexual harassment. It has also provided the confidence that many employees need to come forth after becoming the victim of harassment in the workplace.

Whatever the situation, employers have the legal and ethical obligation to investigate all allegations of sexual harassment. You can also take steps to protect your employees and your business from the cost, embarrassment and emotional damage associated with these claims.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

Although this issue is far to complex to summarize in a few paragraphs, federal sexual harassment protection in the workplace originates from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, Title VII of the Act protects employees from all types of harassment, which the Act defines as a form of discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides a brief but comprehensive definition of workplace sexual harassment. In essence, federal protections prohibit unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and all other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

The EEOC also considers offensive remarks about an individual’s sex to be discriminatory. In other words, “man bashing” or “woman bashing” by one of your staff members can land you in hot water. It’s important to note that any employee, male or female, can be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Two specific considerations are used to legally measure harassment allegations of all types:

  • quid pro quo, and
  • hostile environment

To learn more about each of the two types of workplace harassment, the U.S. Department of Labor publishes a helpful factsheet.

Is Sexual Harassment Happening in Your Business?

Workplace harassment costs companies in many ways, including increased absenteeism and turnover, decreased motivation, lost productivity, fines and legal fees.

Although you want to believe that none of your employees could be guilty of sexual harassment, the statistics indicate that this behavior is widespread. Experts also believe it’s highly underreported by victims.

In some cases, an employee may cause problems due to their disregard of the law and a lack of respect or common decency. In other cases, members of your staff may cause problems based on their ignorance of the law or a lack of understanding. Either way – intentional or not – the employer is obligated to prevent discrimination and harassment and, if it happens, you must take swift and decisive action.

Even then, you could face serious consequences.

Protecting Your Employees & Your Business from Sexual Harassment Claims

You have both a legal and an ethical obligation to provide your employees with a safe workplace. Providing comprehensive training is necessary today, to educate employees and to make your company’s zero-tolerance position on this issue crystal clear. Implementing strong company policies and procedures to address this issue also helps achieve both of these goals.

Provide employees with a formal process for making a complaint. Strongly encourage the reporting of issues as well as a “see something, say something” platform for others who may witness discrimination or harassment.

Finally, if allegations do arise, take quick and decisive action. Consulting a lawyer or human resources expert is the best way to ensure your actions are in the best interest of your employees and your company. Having a neutral third party – like a professional employer organization (PEO) – handle these issues helps ensure a thorough and fair investigation and outcome.

WTA Inc. provides a variety of human resources services for small and medium-sized businesses in Utah and Nevada. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your business address issues of discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.