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Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Preventing-Sexual-Harassment-in-the-WorkplaceWomen make up more than half of the U.S. workforce; a big change from the 1970s. With this shift, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has increased and is becoming quite prevalent. Between 40% to 90% of women in the United States workforce have been victims of some form of sexual harassment on the job. This is not to imply that men are not victims of sexual harassment, however, research has shown that men, although they technically may be sexually harassed, may not think of the behavior in such terms.

We interviewed Peter Stark of Peter Barron Stark & Associates, an expert in helping companies eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Stark works with organizations to help improve the work environment for both employees and improve the customer’s experience.

According to Stark there are two types of sexual harassment. The first, quid pro quo, coming from the Latin term meaning “this for that”, occurs when a boss offers benefits, or threatens to change working conditions, based on demands for sexual favors. For example he/she may say, “I’ll give you a raise if you go out with me.” In his experience, Stark explains that this type of harassment is rare. The more common form of sexual harassment is hostile work environment. This can include, touching, grabbing, sexually charged comments and offensive emails or pictures.

If an employee, who is not at the management level, is the aggressor and the company is unaware of the harassment, then the company is not liable. However, once a complaint is made, or the person committing the harassment is in a management position, then the company is liable and must take swift action to resolve the situation.

The company must address complaints promptly in order to prevent further damage. This is best handled with the assistance of legal counsel. The company may begin by coaching and counseling the aggressor in attempt to remedy the situation. If warranted, the employee may be terminated or relocated to another department within the organization.

Of course, it is always best to avoid any such claims by employees. Stark outlines steps that companies should take to ensure that employees are not victims of sexual harassment:

  • Have a formal, written sexual harassment policy - The policy should briefly and specifically define unlawful sexual harassment and state the consequences associated should they breach the policy. The policy should be reviewed by an attorney and subsequently disseminated to all employees. 
  • Have a grievance procedure - Employees who perceive themselves to be the objects of sexual harassment should have a comfortable and effective process to make a complaint. 
  • Enforce the procedures - Mere adoption of these policies, while helpful, will not in itself insulate an employer from liability. Employer investigations must be undertaken involving questioning of witnesses and the affected parties. 
  • Train employees on proper office conduct - Supervisors and management staff should always be properly trained on office conduct. In states such as California, it is legally mandatory for management to undergo training every two years. More progressive companies take it a step further and train all employees. 
  • Act quickly when there is a problem. If someone is accused of sexual harassment a company needs to act swiftly to remedy the situation.

Sexual harassment can cost a company millions of dollars per year in absenteeism, low productivity and employee turnover. That does not include additional costs for litigation expenses, executive time and tarnished public image should a case wind up in court. By taking the above precautions and training all levels of management on appropriate work conduct you can avoid sexual harassment in the workplace and help to create a pleasant work environment.

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