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Sexual Harassment: Reducing Risk

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner announced his resignation last Friday; his last day in office will be tomorrow, August 30th. In the midst of the 18 sexual harassment allegations filed against the departing mayor, it is important for executives and other professionals to recognize the seriousness of harassment in the workplace, its potential legal and financial implications, and how to reduce the risk of such situations occurring.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as harassing an applicant or employee because of that person’s sex and includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. These actions become illegal when they are so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or results in an adverse employment decision.

Employers should not take sexual harassment complaints lightly. Failure to respond to such reports in a timely manner can result in potentially fatal implications for the business, such as employee resentment, low company morale, low productivity, an increased turnover rate, less teamwork and a damaged company reputation. It can also lead to legal and financial turmoil for company superiors. In 2011, the EEOC reported 11,364 receipts of sexual harassment cases and awarded $52.3 million in monetary benefits, not including money obtained through litigation.

In order to avoid the severe consequences of sexual harassment reports, prevent legal exposure, and protect managers and subordinates, the Fallston Group offers the following tips and suggestions for employers:

Adopt a written policy

Employers should include a clear sexual harassment policy in the employee handbook or another appropriate form of documentation. The policy should:

  • Provide a clear definition of sexual harassment
  • Declare zero-tolerance for such acts and assure discipline or termination will result for offenders
  • Set procedures for reporting sexual harassment complaints
  • Make clear the company will fully investigate any and all complaints

Train employees, supervisors and managers

Training sessions should be conducted each year to clarify what is considered sexual harassment and emphasize the zero-tolerance policy. It should also outline the complaint filing process and encourage employees to use it, as studies show many sexual harassment occurrences go unreported.

Monitor the workplace

Take time to observe the culture and dynamics in your workplace. Interact with employees and supervisors on a regular basis and ensure there is nothing that could be potentially offensive around the work area. Encourage open communication between employees, supervisors and yourself.

Handle complaints swiftly and seriously

When you observe inappropriate behavior or a complaint is filed, intervene as soon as possible. Take each instance with grave seriousness and bring in an expert to conduct an impartial investigation. If the accused is found guilty of the alleged act, enact strict discipline; hand them their termination papers.

Comfort victims

Following the incident and termination of the offender, meet with the victim and provide comfort or consoling. Assure them that coming forward with the complaint was the correct decision and further stress the company does not support such illegal behavior and will always take necessary measures to protect him/her and other employees now and in the future.

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