Avoid Sexual Harassment

April 1998

Managing:Legal Issues

Avoid Sexual Harassment

Strong policies and zero tolerance will help to protect you from lawsuits

by William H. Donahue Jr.

In the past few years, the number of formal complaints filed against employers for some form of sexual harassment skyrocketed to more than 15,000 annually. Jewelers are not exempt. One jeweler who was sued ended up spending $100,000 to resolve the case. Unfortunately, there's no way to ensure you'll never face a sexual harassment suit. But there are three steps you can take to swing the odds in your favor:

  • Make sure you and your employees understand what sexual harassment is.
  • Make it known from day one that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
  • Tell every employee what their rights and duties are if they have a complaint and take every complaint seriously with a fair, prompt and thorough investigation.

What is Sexual Harassment?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sex. Federal and state agencies, laws and courts have expanded and refined the law so discrimination is defined to include sexual harassment. Further, the law recognizes two general types of sexual harassment for which an employee can sue and win damages: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment. Simply put, the Latin phrase Quid Pro Quo means "this for that." "This" is usually some conduct of a sexual nature and "that" is usually some sort of employment benefit or detriment.

A hostile environment exists when the conduct of an employer, supervisor or coworkers creates an atmosphere that is offensive, abusive or intimidating and unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance.

Write It Down
The first step every employer needs to take is to have a written employment policy addressing sexual harassment, says Connie Fanning, a workplace diversity and harassment training consultant based in Minneapolis, MN. At a minimum, the policy needs to state what the law requires in the workplace. It should give examples of the sort of conduct prohibited, from blatant to subtle, making it clear the examples are illustrative and not an exhaustive list.

The effectively drafted policy statement should be couched in positive terms and be a lot more than a laundry list of don'ts. When expanded into a company philosophy statement, often referred to as an Appropriate Behavior Policy, the statement can serve as a powerful tool positively affecting all areas of employee relations (see "A Sexual Harassment Policy Statement" on the next page for an example).

The policy statement should conclude with a message that informs employees to whom they should report the offense and how the report will be handled. It's advisable to state there will be a prompt investigation, any decisions will be rendered fairly, appropriate action will be taken and no reprisals will be made against the complainant.

Create a Policy that Works
The language of the written policy statement should be created with input from employees. Fanning recommends giving statements to all current employees, who should read them carefully and sign them. All new employees should be given the policy and asked to sign it before they begin work. Having the statement in writing and asking the employees to sign it underscores how seriously you take the philosophy.

Fanning does more as a consultant than writing a policy statement telling employees what behavior is actionable. In a three- to four-hour training session, she also engages employees and managers in discussions and role-playing exercises to clarify values and create empathy. These sessions address conflicts and resolve them before they have time to build.

An important aspect of the role- playing and discussion format is how it improves the level of communication among members of an organization to resolve disputes, conflicts and misunderstandings. These dispute-resolution skills are useful in any area of workplace conflict. This is one of the most tangible benefits of using a consultant such as Fanning to work with employees. Employment consultants may charge $1,000 to $2,500 a day, depending on location, experience and the number of employees to be trained. A labor law attorney in your area can refer you to a qualified consultant, or you can look in your local Yellow Pages.

Other jewelers are another valuable resource for finding a good consultant. Talk to people active in your professional jewelers' associations who have used a consultant or who may know someone who has.

For more information, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission publishes detailed guidelines on sexual harassment. These guidelines, along with brochures and sample company policy statements, are also available from most state attorney general offices.

William H. Donahue Jr. is an attorney practicing in New Jersey.

A Sexual Harassment Policy Statement

We expect behavior that respects and encourages the full potential of every employee. We wish to enhance the professionalism and profitability of the company, and each of us needs to understand this can't occur in an environment where individuals feel harassed, intimidated or discriminated against due to their gender.

There are two forms of sexual harassment we must all strive to avoid. The first and most obvious form is asking for sexual favors or behaving inappropriately toward any employee you supervise. Such acts could lead employees to believe that if they do comply, there will be workplace benefits or if they do not comply with your wishes or endure your sexually charged comments, you could fire them or prevent them from obtaining promotions or other benefits.

The second form of sexual harassment concerns the environment in which we work and is easier to make mistakes about. Such actions as telling lewd jokes, displaying sexually explicit photos, teasing a coworker (even one who does not report to you) about sexual matters can be perceived as offensive, degrading or intimidating. This could cause an employee to prevent another from working effectively, harming all of us and the health of our business.

The examples cited here are not the only ones. Use your judgment. Think about your coworkers and their backgrounds, beliefs and conduct at work. Be aware of their reactions to your behavior, even behavior you or your friends would not find offensive. When in doubt, ask coworkers if you are unsure as to whether you have offended them, apologize if they answer yes and ask them to tell you directly if you offend them again.

If you feel you've been harassed in our workplace, the management encourages you to report your concerns promptly. We take such matters seriously and strive to resolve problems as quickly as possible. Please report your concerns to one of the following company officers: (insert names). If you prefer, please call our company attorney, (insert name), at (insert phone number).

We promise each complaint will be handled as follows:

  1. There will be a prompt and thorough investigation.
  2. No decision will be made regarding either you or the accused until the investigation is complete enough to make a fair assessment of the situation.
  3. All parties will be treated fairly with due regard to privacy.
  4. The intent of the process is to create an environment where all employees can work and thrive.
  5. Measures taken to remedy problems will be evenhanded and proportionate to the offense.
  6. No employee will be subjected to retaliation for making a sincere complaint or reporting a sexual harassment problem to the company.







Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


 

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