Sexual Harassment – 4 Best Practices for Employers

With several high profile cases in the news, it’s time to review some best practices for managing harassment in the workplace.

Harvey Weinstein may be dominating news cycles, but he is only the most recent in a string of high-profile executives to be accused of sexual harassment.

Fox News is still reeling from the ouster of its founder, Roger Ailes, and firing of its biggest star, Bill O’Reilly—only after their history of sexual harassment became public. Amazon Studios Executive Roy Price recently resigned following sexual harassment allegations; the National Park Service is under congressional investigation for workplace harassment allegations, and even renowned Silicon Valley has demonstrated a disturbing dark side.  

This problem is not new, but it is one we can (and should) continue to address. For business owners, a proactive approach is key to a healthy work environment and will reinforce the fact that employee well-being is a top priority.

America’s History with Harassment

America’s struggle with workplace harassment reaches back decades—if not centuries– and,  believe it or not, we have made slow and steady progress. Any episode of Mad Men will show you just how much work environments have changed. But much of this harassment hasn’t disappeared; it’s just become less conspicuous.

  • 1964 – Title VII of The Civil Rights Act officially makes harassment in the workplace illegal.
  • 1991 – An amendment to Title VII allows victims of workplace harassment to sue for damages

Harassment laws are currently enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and apply to Employers with 15 or more employees. They offer training focused on harassment prevention and creating respectful workplaces for all. There are also several private firms you can contact for similar training. Some states have also adopted requirements in addition to the federal requirements outlined above.

Employer Liability for Harassment

Employers are automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor if it results in negative employment action, termination or loss of promotion.  

If a supervisor’s harassment results in a hostile work environment and employers are seeking to mitigate risk, the EEOC defines only two ways in which they can avoid liability:

  • The employer reasonably attempted to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior (i.e. employer policy against Sexual Harassment, an investigation grievance procedure, and demonstrated employer action once a complaint is reported are potential examples of prevention and correction).
  • The employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer (i.e. an employee who does not report the Sexual Harassment to their employer is an example of “failing to take advantage of preventive and corrective opportunities”).

4 Best Practices for Employers

The easiest way for an employer to reduce risk is to develop good policies and facilitate a work environment that discourages and prevents harassment in the first place. Proactive, not reactive, measures will put your company in the best situation for dealing with Harassment concerns should they arise.

  1. Employers need to have a harassment-free workplace policy in place that clearly states their stance on harassment in the workplace and outlines a definition of what harassment is. Additionally, employers should develop a non-retaliation policy, reporting and timing reporting requirements, and investigation procedures.  Finally, policies must be communicated and made available to all employees.
  2. Employers must follow their outlined policy when concerns arise. The policy is in place to guide procedure in the event a concern should arise. The EEOC shares that more than 94 percent of sexual harassment cases are not reported and 75 percent of victims experience some form of retaliation.  Investigate all concerns, regardless if they sound absurd, and take action when it’s warranted, regardless of the employee’s role.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Be on the lookout for trends in behavior and investigate thoroughly.
  3. Require training for all employees on Preventing Harassment in the Workplace yearly. This training should be tailored for two audiences: all employees and all leadership. Confirm that all employees participate in the training and consider including a post-test at the end of the training to verify understanding.
  4. Ensure that Leadership understands their responsibilities and that they are accountable for those responsibilities.  Leadership has a higher level of responsibility to reinforce the policy by their actions, making sure employees complete the required training, ensuring any concerns are reported, and cultivating a work environment that is harassment-free and free from retaliation.

Mas Talent is a human resources firm, focusing human resources and diversity and inclusion solutions, for companies both large and small. For more information, or to schedule a free consultation, contact us here.


*The author of this article, Cyndi Ramirez Ryan, SPHR, is not an attorney. Her perspective is based on expertise in practical human resources experiences over her career.