Tips for employers: Five steps to foster a harassment-free workplace

Employers have a legal duty to foster a workplace free from sexual harassment. Follow these tips to protect your company and your workforce.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem in any workplace. It can expose your company to costly litigation and extensive liability. Additionally, pervasive harassment can diminish morale and tarnish your business reputation.

Fortunately, as an employer or human resources professional, you have the opportunity to set the tone for your entire organization. By taking these proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment - and by promptly and appropriately dealing with allegations of harassment - you can protect your business as well as your workforce.

1. Have a carefully written, zero-tolerance harassment policy

All employers should adopt written policies on sexual harassment. The policy should address key issues such as:

  • Defining sexual harassment, which can include not only quid pro quo harassment but also offensive jokes, unwanted advances, inappropriate touching and other actions that create a hostile work environment
  • Establishing procedures for reporting harassment, including alternative ways to report harassment by a supervisor or other superior
  • Outlining an objective framework for investigating the harassment in a way that's fair and neutral
  • Detailing the potential consequences of harassment, which may range from a formal warning to suspension, demotion or termination

This policy should be readily accessible to all employees.

2. Educate your employees

Not all employees understand the boundaries of appropriate behavior in the workplace. They may assume that sexual harassment can only involve a male and female, for example, when in fact it encompasses any type of sex-based harassment.

It's important to establish clear and consistent expectations upfront. In addition to including a written sexual harassment policy in an employee handbook, you can also bolster employees' awareness of this important issue through periodic trainings. You should also consider promulgating informational materials on sexual harassment, how to prevent it and how to report it.

3. Select your leadership carefully

Sexual harassment is a serious problem it itself. It becomes even worse when the perpetrator fires or demotes the victim for standing up against harassment. Those who have the authority to make hiring decisions can expose your company to significant liability in these situations. As a result, you should clearly define which roles have the authority to make personnel decisions, and fill those roles with an abundance of caution.

4. Take all allegations of harassment seriously

Always conduct a thorough and neutral investigation of every harassment complaint. The investigation process should focus on uncovering the truth, not on minimizing the employee's complaints or protecting the company. Employees should never feel pressured to keep silent about harassment for fear of jeopardizing their careers. If they have reason to believe that reporting the harassment will be futile, your company will face greater exposure to liability.

5. Document everything

Thorough documentation is essential for all aspects of the employer-employee relationship, especially when allegations of sexual harassment arise. You should keep confidential documentation on:

  • The allegations of harassment
  • Specific steps of the investigation
  • Detailed findings of the investigation
  • Disciplinary actions taken against the harasser
  • Should you end up in court, this documentation can prove invaluable in establishing that you complied with the law.

The importance of legal counsel

Avoiding sexual harassment claims requires well-thought-out strategies at all stages of the employer-employee relationship, from implementing proactive policies to carefully handling allegations of harassment. The employment attorneys at Harrington Barnes, PC, help Texas employers take the right steps to minimize their risk of liability and effectively resolve disputes.

Keywords: employment, employment law, employers, harassment, sexual harassment, workplace