Since entering the workforce as a teenager, I've made friends, built lifelong relationships, and in many cases, been the only female in the workplace. Most of the time, I felt respected and treated equally. I've also had my fair share of wage gap disputes, gender bias, and managerial comments that I am certain weren't made to my male colleagues. I can also unfortunately say #MeToo.
Employers, you can do something about sexual harassment. You can create a safer and more dignified workplace with just a few changes.
Acknowledge Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The first way to stop harassment is to be aware that it exists. Understand that, like workplace bullying, it may not be obvious. While this list isn't all inclusive, here are a few ways sexual harassment happens in the workplace:
- Joking, uninvited compliments, gesturing, pet names, commenting on clothing and other things that could be perceived as sexual or uncomfortable attention.
- Assault, uninvited affection, flirting, or touching such as rubbing shoulders, hugging, pinching, brushing against another's body, asking to date, go out, or other propositions, or blocking an employee from leaving a room.
- Sending emails or texts that include flirting, sexual comments, sexual or nude photos, or other unwanted attention.
- Blackmailing employees or requesting sexual favors for promotions, wage increases, or to prevent termination.
- Unwelcome conversations about private sexual relationships, experiences, or orientation in front of coworkers.
- Witnessing sexual harassment or preferential treatment to employees who are sexually harassed or in a relationship with another coworker.
Set a Clear Zero Tolerance Policy on Sexual Harassment
If employees are aware of an easy process for reporting sexual harassment, they will feel safer and it could reduce the chances of it happening. If they know that your staff is educated on reporting it, HR will investigate it, and it isn't tolerated within your workplace, you could stop the behavior before it begins.
Listen and believe those who report it. The most horrible thing for a victim is to be dismissed. Yes, harassment can happen from the same sex. Yes, your most impressive employee can still be a perpetrator. Yes, others may feel treated unfairly or uncomfortable if two coworkers (especially supervisor/employee) are dating or displaying affection in the workplace. Yes, you should implement a no workplace retaliation policy.
Investigate. Carefully investigate the claims of reported abuse before jumping to conclusions. False accusations or misread cues can occur. Hidden relationships can go bad and then be used against a coworker.
Involve human resources. Not only should human resources be involved to investigate, they should also proactively be involved to prevent it. Training, zero tolerance policies, and open conversations should occur to remind employees that they will be protected or will face consequences for harassment. If your company has a strict rule against coworker relationships, this should also be widely known.
Create policies for reporting and addressing the problem. Employers may already be aware of federal and state regulations for preventing harassment in the workplace. After reviewing those, there should be a clear policy for preventing, reporting and addressing sexual harassment. These should include:
- Defining sexual harassment (with examples).
- Which information is required to file a complaint.
- How victims should address the behavior with the accused, manager, or human resources.
- How managers should address complaints with victims, the accused, and human resources.
- How the accused should address complaints with the victim, management, and human resources.
- How HR will investigate the claim, when police will be notified, and the discipline for violation of the policy.
Talk about sexual harassment. Stop making sexual harassment an uncomfortable conversation. To prevent toxic behavior, employers have to shine a light on it. When placing employment ads, state your zero tolerance harassment policy. Add it to your benefits paperwork and on the company website. Discuss it in job interviews. Give employees an awareness of how the problem is handled within your organization. Offer training to employees on how to set clear boundaries. Encourage both men and women to engage in the conversation because men can also be victims of sexual harassment.
Run Background Checks on Employees
It's not a secret that organizations that skip out on background checks may be found liable for negligent hiring. We've read far too many stories about workers accused of sexual misconduct only to find out that their employer didn't screen them at all. Please screen employees before hiring them. Many organizations have also adopted periodic background checks of current employees to prevent harassment, theft, or drug use. If your candidates were in management, find out if there was a high turnover rate within their team. Conduct behavioral interviews, call references, and ask questions about your candidate's employment experience. And again, remind them of your company's zero tolerance policy.
I was hired at my first job because the manager told me he liked how I looked in the uniform. My #MeToo stories started from job 1, day 0. I've had human resources to back me up, most of the time. Other times, I simply had to find another job. When you're working 40 hours or more a week with a team, typically more than you spend at home, it's easy to cross over personal boundaries. The difference, it seems, includes the addition of the terms, "unwanted" or "unwelcomed". This topic is still being hashed out and will be for some time. The tides are shifting and employers can lead the charge by helping employees feel safer at work. The first step of awareness, thankfully, is already happening.
Many thanks to Tonya Cauduro for contributing this post for VeriFirst Background Screening. Tonya works with VeriFirst by assisting with the blog and marketing efforts.