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VOL. 11 | NO. 7 | Saturday, February 17, 2018

Companies Updating Their Sexual Harassment Policies

By Michael Waddell

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Workplace sexual harassment has been making headlines nationwide, with high-profile individuals in entertainment, media and other industries losing their jobs over accusations of misconduct. In recent months, companies have been taking a closer look at their harassment policies and updating them where necessary.

“The most obvious way to prevent sexual harassment is to have a well-crafted policy that doesn’t tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form, and it needs to be communicated to all employees,” said Marty Barton, senior vice president and general counsel with Adams Keegan human resources outsourcing firm.

Judy Bell of Judy Bell Consulting said training is the key to preventing workplace sexual harassment before it happens.

“It has to be talked about regularly, at least annually,” said Bell, who has worked in human resources for the past 35 years, previously with the Tennessee Department of Labor in Nashville. “Employers now need to pull out their old sexual harassment policy and update it.”

Proper training for front-line managers or supervisors is important so that they know what to do when they either see sexual harassment taking place or it is reported to them.

“Most of employers’ liability really is caught up in the front-line supervisor or manager being able to know what to do when something occurs,” Barton said.

Legally actionable sexual harassment must be pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

“A stray comment or an action here or there isn’t going to rise to the level of lawsuit-type of actionable harassment,” Barton said. “That being said, that’s a technicality. Anything that’s said that’s inappropriate needs to be dealt with whether it’s legally actionable or not.”

Bell, a former president and board member of SHRM-Memphis (Society of Human Resource Management-Memphis), points out that previous sexual harassment training might have had pictures or jokes, but now needs to include texts and other social media-related issues.

“I think it’s good to have in-person training and not just webinars or online training,” said Bell, who has seen an increase over the past few months in companies requesting training and wanting to revise and update their policies, probably at least partially in response to the national incidents.

“Corporate America has had zero tolerance for many years because we knew the damage that could be done to people individually, as well as reputational risk for the companies,” Bell said. “It just doesn’t make good business sense to allow it to happen. I think Hollywood and the media has been slow to respond, much slower than corporate America.”

In the case of a sexual harassment situation, reporting it immediately to HR is critical, and a full investigation should take place immediately after the complaint is filed.

“The most important thing you can do is to take the complaint seriously and make sure you respond in a timely manner,” Barton said. “One of things that gets employers in trouble is delaying an investigation, and employees can feel like their concerns aren’t being heard.”

For an employer to limit its liability, it must demonstrate that appropriate steps were taken following a complaint. Drilling down and recording exact dates, times, situations and witnesses lends credibility to the accuser.

“If it’s a larger company, even if it’s not a manager who is part of the problem, many people are uncomfortable talking to the manager,” said Bell, whose business offers executive coaching, HR legal work and leadership development. “So there needs to be an HR component that’s confidential with no retaliation.”

Disciplinary action for substantiated workplace sexual harassment allegations can range from a job termination, depending on the severity of the conduct, to a formal written warning and a reiteration of the company’s policy.

While many claims of sexual harassment are real, unfortunately some of the claims turn out to be fabricated in order to get a person in trouble.

“To be wrongly accused, to me, is as bad as actually harassing someone,” Bell said.

Steering clear of office romance or dating, as well as avoiding drinking with co-workers, are a couple of ways to lessen the chance of getting into potential sexual harassment situations.

“Dating at work can go terribly wrong, especially if one person is in a more senior position,” Bell said.

It’s important to note that while sexual harassment is predominantly women accusing men of wrongdoing, cases do go the other way with men accusing women of misdeeds, as well as same-sex situations.

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