You would think in this day and time that sexual harassment would not continue to be an issue, but unfortunately it is. A major portion of this problem is that we do not train employees to understand what the laws are regarding sexual harassment. We train supervisors, sometimes, but seldom teach employees. To save your company time and trouble you need to teach employees about sexual harassment.
A refresher lesson
There are two definitions of sexual harassment. The first is the stereotypical definition of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is that situation where a male boss requires some act of sex in order for her to save her job, get a job, get a pay increase, get a promotion or some other situation where performing the sex act is a requisite part of the employment activity. Just one incident of this is sufficient for someone to claim sexual harassment. Of course in today’s workplace the boss does not always have to be the male nor does the victim have to be female.
The second form of sexual harassment is hostile environment. This is the one that causes more problems for employers. It is not so cut and dried as is quid pro quo. Examples of hostile environment include risqué jokes, sexually oriented cartoons, pictures, websites, comments, looks, overheard conversations and more. What makes this more difficult to deal with is that the sexual harassment is in the “eye of the beholder.” If the person that is exposed to the incidents above is offended then it is considered sexual harassment. Naturally the easiest fix for this is for the offended person to let the other person know that they were offended. If the behavior is not stopped then further steps should be taken.
Where hostile environment sexual harassment becomes problematic is when the “victim” participates in some of the activity. My friend, attorney Jon Hyman, describes such a situation in There is no such thing as a “license to harass”. He states: “To establish an unlawful hostile work environment, an employee must prove, among other factors, that the workplace was subjectively offensive. Some employers misinterpret this requirement as meaning that an employee who participates in sexual banter, off-color jokes, or shares intimate details of her personal life is asking to be harassed.” He then goes on to relate a court case in which the court did not accept a defense where the defendant claimed that the female employees behavior gave him a “license to harass.” He was arguing that her participation in the jokes and banter basically gave him the right to then touch her and call her offensive names. Well he was wrong!
Here is the lesson from that case. Just because someone laughs at a joke, shares a risqué cartoon or even uses foul language does not mean they want to have their ass fondled. When they draw “a line in the sand” and say don’t cross this then any further violation needs to be dealt with by HR or management.
How to lessen the impact
You lessen the impact of hostile environment sexual harassment through training. I am not talking about the period training or annual training (such as the training required in California.) Many companies are afraid to do sexual harassment training because they think that by making employees aware they will now get sexual harassment complaints. Yes, indeed you might, but that also indicates that you had a problem that was potentially going to explode into a much bigger problem.
The kind of training I am talking about occurs in every orientation of a new employee, be it for one person or multiple new hires. Take the time to make them familiar with your sexual harassment policy. Give them specific examples of what is considered unacceptable. Give them guidance on what they should do if they encounter something they are uncomfortable with. Tell them they bear a responsibility for setting their personal standards and enforcing those standards.
If you have done this from their first day of employment you will cut down on the number of incidents and be able to nip others in the bud before they develop into bigger situations. Of course annual reinforcement of the policy through training will be good too.