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How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Work Place

The definition of sexual harassment, on the surface, seems fairly straightforward. Broadly, it is imposing an unwanted condition on a person’s employment because of that person’s sex.

Then again, maybe not. At issue is the connection between the behavior and the working circumstances and conditions of the person who is being harassed and the role of the alleged harasser. Often, sexual harassment is really about power — abuse of power — in the workplace.

Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

Generally speaking, sexual harassment falls into one of two categories:

  • Quid pro quo harassment: The quid pro quo theory rests on the notion that an individual has relied on his or her actual or apparent authority to extort sexual favors from an employee.

  • Hostile environment harassment: Hostile environment sexual harassment, in contrast, is when an individual has been required to endure a work environment that substantially affects a term or condition of employment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines describe sexual harassment as follows: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The guidelines go on to add additional requirements:

  • Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment.

  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals.

  • Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

These guidelines are loaded with terms that are highly dependent on perceptions and interpretations. People (courts included) have varying ideas of what is implicit and what factors make a workplace intimidating or hostile. Nevertheless, these are important concepts that you should at least have a basic understanding of in order to address this important area in your work environment.

No company today can afford to ignore this issue, and no one with HR responsibility can afford to forget that what one person may view as a harmless joke may well be perceived by another as an aggressive and unwelcome sexual advance. Sexual harassment is one area of HR management in which you can never be too careful.

How to spread the word about employee sexual harassment

It’s no longer enough to simply declare in writing your company’s commitment to prevent sexual harassment. You need a written policy that spells it out clearly, and you need to state, in no uncertain terms, the penalties for violating the policy.

Under the law, an employer may be found not liable for certain forms of sexual harassment if the employer can show that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassment and that the employee complainant unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Your company is responsible for making sure that everyone in the organization recognizes that sexual harassment is wrong and will not be tolerated in the workplace. It’s not enough to simply adopt and publish a sexual harassment policy. It’s also the company’s responsibility to effectively communicate the philosophy and procedures associated with it to everyone in the company.

Publicizing your policy on sexual harassment can be accomplished yearly. Set a date during the same month each year and send copies of your policies to every employee. You also may consider developing an online sexual harassment policy manual and training course that you can deliver to every employee annually.

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