Help Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Woman being harassed at work

Workplace sexual harassment often begins privately, and it can take different forms, so it can be difficult to recognize. As a result, there is increased complexity around an organizational response when workplace harassment is reported or witnessed. 

An effective organizational prevention program should do the following:

  • Clearly define what sexual harassment in the workplace is and is not.
  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace and communicate the policy to all employees.
  • Foster a workplace culture that promotes honesty, establishes a safe environment and eliminates barriers to reporting.
  • Create effective procedures that define boundary lines and model appropriate behavior(s) for employees in all work settings.
  • Establish multiple mechanisms for employees to report workplace sexual harassment in confidence.
  • Provide effective response protocols that affirm the reporter and allow for a prompt investigation while maintaining privacy for everyone involved and establishing accountability as necessary.
  • Provide training for employees at all levels of the organization.

Defining Workplace Sexual Harassment

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” which can include “offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” A harasser can be anyone within the workplace of either sex. The EEOC also states, “the victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.” According to the EEOC, “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”

The complexity around the subject arises from the fact that sexual conduct can move from “welcomed” to “unwelcomed” suddenly and without warning. Recognizing this and taking prompt and effective actions are critical to preventing situations from rising to the level of harassment.

How to Help Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

There are several steps that you can take to reduce the risk of sexual harassment occurring in your workplace. Below are six strategies to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Establish a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Perhaps the most important policy within your harassment prevention program is your organizational zero-tolerance policy. This is because the zero-tolerance policy sets the tone for the entire organization and is the foundation on which all other policies and procedures are built. A written and communicated zero-tolerance policy lets everyone know that:

  • Your organization takes employee protection seriously;
  • Inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated within your organization; and
  • Your organization will investigate and cooperate with authorities when responding to allegations.

You should ask the following questions to help determine how your organizational policies and procedures should look:

  1. Do your policies communicate a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviors?
  2. Do your policies define appropriate and inappropriate behavior and contact?
  3. Do your policies communicate a strong commitment to responding to any suspicion and/or allegation of harassment?

If you answered “No” to any (or all) of these questions, you might want to consider revising your existing organizational policies and procedures.

Sample Zero Tolerance Policy

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Establish Workplace Culture

The culture within your organization should set the tone for how everyone should treat sexual harassment. The culture should mirror the organizational policy and your organization must demonstrate to all employees at all levels that you take this matter seriously.

Employees should feel that they are valued, that you will listen and that you will take them seriously. They should understand exactly what to do if they are harassed and feel confident that they will be protected if they need to report harassment.

Your organization should work to identify and aggressively remove barriers to reporting when they exist. The following are steps that can be taken to eliminate barriers:

  • Communicate often that all reports are taken seriously.
  • Follow up with the reporter promptly.
  • Implement effective protections for the reporter.
  • Establish procedures and follow them consistently.
  • Develop and publicize multiple reporting mechanisms.
  • Provide anonymous reporting methods.
  • Provide training to supervisors.
  • Demonstrate that accountability was taken.

Create Effective Procedures

Your organizational procedures should do the following:

  • Establish boundaries around acceptable workplace behaviors and establish lines that all employees should stay in.
  • Enable management and employees to better identify inappropriate behaviors through recognizing boundary violations.
  • Help employees understand how to avoid disciplinary action.
  • Communicate exactly what steps will be taken and when.

The EEOC states that “unwelcomed conduct” means that the challenged conduct must be unwelcome "in the sense that the employee did not solicit or incite it, and in the sense that the employee regarded the conduct as undesirable or offensive."

Organizational procedures should model welcomed conduct versus unwelcomed conduct and should identify the point in time when welcomed conduct becomes unwelcomed conduct. This could be when an employee communicates to the aggressor that the conduct is not desired or welcome. Examples are as follows:

Acceptable Behaviors Unacceptable Behaviors
Handshakes Physical contact other than handshakes
Complimenting documented job performance Promising a favor in exchange for sexual conduct
General conversations that aren't personal Displaying inappropriate content during work and/or on company-owned equipment
Making derogatory remarks about another individual or group of individuals, including jokes

Establish Reporting Mechanisms

Your organization should establish multiple mechanisms for employees to report sexual harassment. This is because the aggressor could potentially be the employee’s supervisor and they are fearful of this person.

You should consider the following when implementing reporting procedures:

  • Establish an anonymous reporting hotline for employees.
  • Designate a trustworthy high-level employee as the reporting officer of the organization.
    • Require this person to report out to the Board of Directors on all matters.
  • Contract with a third-party company to receive and investigate complaints.

Establish a Response Plan

Below are some general responses that could be incorporated into an abuse prevention program:

  • Comforting and finding assistance for reporting employees
  • Interrupting inappropriate behaviors and procedure violations and determining corrective action(s)
  • Reporting incidents as appropriate within the organization to supervisors, administration and externally to authorities, media, etc.
  • Evaluating and changing practices to reduce the chance of future incidents

With the proper critical response protocols in place, your organization can do the following:

  • Reduce the risk of an incident or false allegation of harassment
  • Prevent an incident that could damage your reputation and lead to civil litigation or criminal charges
  • Prevent further harm from occurring

Below are some best practices to consider in your response plan:

  • Respond swiftly; don’t wait for something little to escalate and trigger a response.
  • Respond to the little happenings.
  • Treat “near misses” as free lessons and take every opportunity to learn from them.
  • Don’t respond in a way that treats the situation as an isolated event.
  • Use a continuum of responses that meet the needs of the situation.

Provide Training

Your organizational training program is the place where policies and procedures make the transition to culture and practice.

Training is essential because it:

  • Conveys the organization’s commitment to safety;
  • Builds commitment to organizational change and policies;
  • Teaches employees at all levels their role in risk management;
  • Creates common language; and
  • Demonstrates “due diligence.”

Best Practices for Training

  • Train preventative skill-based content. Teach the skills needed to prevent opportunities for harassment to take place.
  • Use training as “reminders”; become creative with ways your organization can implement reminders into “everyday” operations.
  • Schedule routine check-ins. Meeting once is not enough, so you should regularly refresh your working memory.
  • Make training an active part of supervision all the time.

Understand Leadership Training Needs

Organizations should use the following checklist when assessing leadership’s training needs:

Executive Leadership

  • □ Scope and nature of the problem
  • □ Effect on organizations
  • □ System-wide strategies for prevention
  • □ Response mechanisms

Mid-Level Supervisors

  • □ Supervision skills
  • □ Exception monitoring
  • □ Policy enforcement
  • □ Feedback systems
  • □ Screening (hiring managers)

Know Your Training Method Options

Examples of possible educational opportunities include the following:

  • Online courses and resources
  • Dedicated web pages with resources and organization-specific information
  • Conducting orientations
  • Formal curriculum activities, such as videos and group discussions
  • Informal “teachable moments”
  • Handbooks
  • Newsletters and bulletins
  • Employee surveys
  • Short Videos

Great American policyholders also have access to a safety video library with over 800 training programs that can be shared across your organization. The library covers topics such as sexual harassment, leadership and culture, and more.

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