Loehrke: How not to be the next sexual harassment headline
December 9, 2017
The seemingly endless headlines reporting sexual harassment by public figures and high-profile employees are disturbing. But it's not just high-profile organizations that need to worry about harassment in the workplace; sexual harassment can happen anywhere.
That means companies of all sizes have a duty to provide a workplace free of harassment for their employees. But with 48 percent of women having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (according to a recent poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal), employers simply aren't succeeding in that responsibility.
Where is training required?
Sexual harassment training is required in just three states — California, Connecticut and Maine — each of which has specific parameters employers must follow for periodic training.
Does no requirement equal no training?
Even in states with no training requirement, employee education still is the No. 1 way to prevent sexual harassment claims. Taking the time to communicate to your employees that sexual harassment won't be tolerated and explaining what could constitute harassment is the first step toward lowering your risk for claims, regardless of your state.
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As you consider training, keep in mind that your employees don't necessarily need to understand the technical terms in the law. What's most important is that they leave with a clear understanding of the types of behaviors that are prohibited in the workplace.
Making it stick
According to Chai Feldblum, the commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for training to work, it must be part of a comprehensive effort within your organization.
In part, that means the commitment to prevent sexual harassment starts with company leaders showing a real commitment, and the employees believing it's authentic.
That authenticity requires the education you provide is supported though action. Once comprehensive training has been delivered, demonstrating that sexual harassment won't be tolerated is a critical follow-up step.
Beyond being able to recognize harassing behavior, managers must know to take claims of sexual harassment seriously and deal with them swiftly. They also must set the example by refraining from inappropriate behavior themselves and by immediately addressing anything they personally witness.
Training for supervisors should specifically include how to accept complaints of sexual harassment. Role-playing exercises can be especially helpful here.
Training helps where harassment still happens
Where you don't manage to avoid claims against your company, note that training still can help you avoid liability.
If an employee alleges he or she was the victim of sexual harassment, you can avoid liability by showing:
» 1. Your company took steps to prevent and promptly correct harassing behavior. For example, you'll want to be able to show that harassment training was conducted and that your company's commitment to keeping sexual harassment out of the workplace was clearly demonstrated.
» 2. The employee didn't take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities that were provided. Preventive or corrective opportunities should include a process for employees to report harassment (preferably including multiple reporting avenues). You would need to be able to show that the victim did not take steps to stop the behavior (such as indicating that the harassment was unwelcome) and did not report harassment despite opportunities to do so.
— Katie Loehrke is a certified Professional in Human Resources and an editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics such as discrimination, privacy and social media, and affirmative action. She is the editor of J. J. Keller's Employment Law Today newsletter and its Essentials of Employment Law manual. For more information, go to http://www.jjkeller.com/hr and http://www.jjkellerlibrary.com.