New York Employment Law Blog

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

How can employers help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be detrimental to the business as a whole. Not only does it create discomfort, dissent, and often fear, among employees, but it interferes with company efficiency and can create significant legal exposure for employers. If you are an employer handling complaints of sexual harassment or simply looking to be proactive in establishing appropriate boundaries in your workplace, you should consult a talented employment lawyer experienced in such matters.

Ways of Attacking the Problem

Being aware of the nature of sexual harassment, setting a good example, and being vigilant around the workplace can all be helpful in deterring future incidents.

Defining Sexual Harassment

Before we can attack a problem, we have to understand its parameters. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that a reasonable person would find intimidating, offensive or humiliating. Included under the umbrella of sexual harassment are:

  • Suggestive or derogatory remarks
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Harassing phone calls
  • Spreading rumors of a sexual nature
  • Repeated unwelcome personal questions
  • Unnecessary physical contact
  • Leering
  • Displaying or distributing sexist or sexually explicit materials

Things to Remember

Sexual harassment can occur as a single incident as well as from ongoing misbehavior. It can also occur even when such conduct was previously welcome or consensual. Sexual harassment can happen not only in the office, but on a client's premises or during employment off-site work-related functions. Also, employee sexual harassment can be perpetrated by telephone, text, email or on social media as long as it is relevant to the employment of the person targeted. It is also important to remember that men as well as women can be victims of sexual harassment and that they may be victimized by women as well as other men.

Taking Proactive Steps

It cannot be assumed that employees are aware of acceptable standards of behavior. There have to be written policies and regular training sessions that should include examples of inappropriate behavior and how an employee should proceed if he or she has experienced workplace harassment.

Employers should be aware to some degree of relationships going on between employees since relationships that go bad can result in accusations of sexual harassment. Also, employers should not assume that because a complaint has not been filed, everything is fine. It often takes a while until an employee is brave enough to voice a complaint, so it’s a good idea for an employer to be able to nip things in the bud.

It is a good idea to designate a particular person as the go-to contact for sexual harassment complaints. The contact person should be trained to be supportive and present options to the complainant, not to do actual investigations. This individual should also be taught to evaluate whether the situation requires informing the employer of the problem. If the allegations require investigation, such investigation should be done by an external, independent investigator.

Once the particular case is concluded, the employer should consider whether there are lessons to be learned from this experience and whether policies, training or procedures should be beefed up.

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