Why you need a sexual harassment policy

More than a third of women say they’ve experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to one report. As an employer, having a sexual harassment policy is crucial in both discouraging inappropriate behavior and protecting yourself if something happens at your workplace. Read on to understand why you need a policy and what should be included.

Why do you need an anti-harassment policy?

First, a good anti-harassment policy acts as a deterrent. With a written policy in place that forbids sexual harassment, identifies behavior that would constitute harassment, and provides employees with methods by which they can report harassment, you’re raising awareness and communicating that the practice will not be tolerated.

Second, without a comprehensive written policy, a company is opening itself up to liability. “If a company does have a procedure and the complainant failed to follow it, or the complainant did follow it and the company also followed it, those can be important defenses in a discrimination case,” says Susan Crumiller, a sexual harassment attorney and owner of Crumiller P.C. in New York City.

What should it include?

There are many ways to design a sexual harassment policy. You could start with a boilerplate example, such as this sample policy. Your policy may need to be tweaked to reflect the unique characteristics of your workplace and employees. (See also this policy on harassmentfrom the U.S. Department of State.)

Overall, there are several things you should consider including:

  • A description of sexual harassment:In broad brush strokes, your policy needs to define sexual harassment. For instance, ILO’s example states, “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated.” (There’s more to it, including examples of prohibited conduct, such as sexual comments, stories and jokes, or physical contact such as touching or pinching.)
  • A realistic reporting mechanism:If all sexual harassment complaints should be reported to one supervisor—and that supervisor is the one doing the harassing—then a victim has no recourse. “I always suggest policies that include multiple avenues [for reporting],” Crumiller says. For instance, designate multiple staff members who could receive complaints, including a member of human resources.
  • A planned course of action:What will happen to employees who violate the sexual harassment policy? It should be clear that they will be subject to discipline, although the extent to which you get into the details is up to you. “The policy should be pretty general on this,” says Matthew Lockaby, a labor and employment attorney in Lexington, KY. “You don’t want to get hamstrung if the same person has complained for the 30th time that year, but you do need to take every complaint seriously, and you do need to take action.” For instance, you might list the sanctions that may apply to someone who’s been found to have sexually harassed someone else, including a verbal or written warning, a transfer or a dismissal.
  • A strong reporting policy:If employees feel that they are experiencing sexual harassment, they should be encouraged to report it. Managers and supervisors must take all complaints seriously, and if they witness sexual harassment, they must report it. “I advise clients to encourage their employees to report any such conduct that they’ve witnessesd and any credible accounts of such conduct,” Lockaby says. “In the end, it’s best for the employer to know than not know, and best to encourage employees to err on the side of reporting.”
  • Strict anti-retaliation provisions: It must be clearly and unequivocally stated that retribution for either first-party or third-party reports will not be tolerated. Retaliation occurs when a manager (or someone else) fires, demotes or harasses someone for filing a complaint or speaking up about discrimination.
  • A confidentiality clause:Although you can’t promise complete confidentiality, you can state that you’ll treat complaints as confidentially as possible and that information will be kept secure.

What else is important?

There are two vital requirements for an effective sexual harassment policy. First, the company must support and believe in it. “The most important thing a company’s sexual harassment policy must include is not within the policy itself, but an actual intention to care about eradicating sexual harassment,” Crumiller says. “A written policy means nothing if it’s not followed.”

Second, all employees must be trained effectively, on both sexual harassment prevention and on the policy itself. Because despite the procedures you’ve put in place, employees might report to the wrong people—and those people should understand how to handle that complaint and where to go with it. Supervisors must understand how to maintain confidentiality. And all employees must know not to be dismissive.

“I tell my clients, ‘Your policy is only going to be as effective as you are at implementing it,’” Lockaby says. “If you don’t respond to complaints, no one is going to take advantage of it.”

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