Trigger Warning: This article contains material relating to sexual assault and harassment that some readers may find disturbing.
Since the #MeToo movement took the national spotlight, conversations about workplace sexual harassment have become commonplace (check out our article on it here). So what should be done when workplace sexual harassment occurs? We’ll dig into it a little below.
Defining the Scope of Sexual Harassment
Before we get into the response to sexual harassment incidents in the workplace, let’s take a look at the parameters of sexual assault complaints. Many, many individuals are misinformed about the nature of sexual assault and believe it only encompasses behaviors such as rape or quid-pro-quo advances.
The truth is, sexual harassment is more than unwanted physical contact—it can also be psychological in nature. The term sexual harassment spans an entire range of behaviors that are unwelcome, persistent or offensive in a sexual nature.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission delineates sexual harassment as:
- Unwelcome sexual advances.
- Requests for sexual favors.
- Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
A number of behaviors fall within this range, including:
- Preferential Treatment: This category includes both executed preferential treatment or promises of preferential treatment in return for sexual favors. It also includes solicitation of quid-pro-quo sexual relationships.
- Attempted or Completed Sexual Assault: This includes rape, molestation, battery, sexual touching, groping, brushing, poking, and just about any other form of physical contact done in a sexual nature.
- Unwanted Advances: These are propositions for sexual conduct, dates or other sexual comments, which can include remarks about an employee’s body, sexual gestures and noises, or comments about a person’s sexuality or sexual history.
- Threats: This means threatening an employee with unwanted sexual conduct.
- Sexually Discriminatory/Offensive Material: This includes bringing sexually discriminatory or explicit material into the workplace.
How to Guide Employee Behavior
Many guides and HR codes of conduct will suggest that the first action should be conducted by the employee—to confront the harasser and explain that the behavior is unwanted.
This is bad advice.
Because of the nature of sexual harassment, assault and workplace power dynamics, harassers often intimidate their victims into silence or gaslight them into believing the behavior is “no big deal.”
Worse, there’s always the possibility of workplace retribution (such as the harasser cutting off the employee by approaching HR first and claiming to be the victim).
Your employees should feel safe to approach your human resources team the moment uncomfortable behavior has occurred. This will allow HR to nip the behavior in the bud before it has a chance to root into the workplace any further.
Employees should (if possible) provide a written statement that includes the date, time and type of incident that occurred. If witnesses were present, they should be included as well.
From the employee’s point of contact, a human resources investigation should begin.
Conduct for Managers and Human Resources
There are several important steps for a manager or supervisor to take when approached with a sexual harassment complaint. These tips should be rules, not guidelines. Failure to act on them can lead to a hostile workplace or legal action.
- Take the Complaint Seriously: Every single complaint of sexual misconduct should be treated with professionalism. A manager’s personal feelings about the employee, the employee’s behavior in and out of the workplace, or the believability of the complaint are all irrelevant. When a complaint is filed, it should be investigated regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
- HR Should Be Involved Immediately: Sexual harassment complaints are not a one-person task. Before any further action is taken, HR should be notified and involved.
- Protect the Employee’s Safety and Confidentiality: Nearly 75% of women who report sexual harassment are retaliated against. It is one of the most common errors in the sexual harassment complaint process. Any necessary action needed to prevent retribution from the harasser and the victim’s privacy/safety should be taken immediately. Failure to do so will not only result in danger for this employee, but it will also erode employee confidence in the HR system and prevent future reporting of such behavior.
When conducting the investigation, the HR director has a few specific tasks. These include:
- Inform the Involved Parties of the Situation: Making the harasser aware of the seriousness of the allegations and the consequences of violating company sexual harassment policy. The reporting employee should also be made aware of these policies; however, do not under any circumstances present this information in an accusatory manner.
- Provide Company Sexual Harassment Policy to Employees: Even if the accused and accusers have already received copies of the policy in the past, provide them with a new one. Outline for the accused what is and is not considered acceptable in the workplace.
- Involve Authorities If Necessary: Circumstances such as assault, rape and the sharing of revenge photos are criminal acts. In these circumstances, law enforcement should be involved.
- Establish Investigation: If individuals with managerial power are involved in the complaint, it may be prudent to hire a third-party firm to conduct the investigation. Either way, notify the complainant that the investigation is underway.
- Provide a Written Report/Notification: At the conclusion of the investigation, the complainant should be provided with a written report and a notification of any corrective actions to be taken. HR should also take this time to ask the complainant what steps can be taken to make him or her feel safer in the workplace.
Let Complete Payroll Help You Manage Your HR Situation
Complete Payroll has all the information and processes you need to establish clear workplace guidelines, conduct investigations and handle these difficult cases. Visit our toolkit page here for more information, or read more about the process at our pillar page.