A recent Supreme Court ruling that an employer can be held liable for sexual harassment, even if the employer is unaware of the incident, should serve as a warning to business owners to develop or refine company policies.
The ruling falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which also protects non-victims from working in a “sexually hostile” environment. In essence, an employee can sue a company if he or she witnesses others being harassed, reports it and nothing is done.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov) has received a steady increase in the number of sexual harassment claims filed since the 1991 Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings. In that year, 6,883 claims were filed; last year, 15,889 charges were filed with EEOC, and of those cases that were resolved, almost 19% resulted in some benefit to the charging parry.
“Employers must either institute or go back to their policies and make sure that there are effective mechanisms in place for their employees to report allegations of harassment,” says Karen Khan, a senior litigator with Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman in Washington, D.C., and a former EEOC supervisory trial attorney.
Follow these further steps to protect your company:
Develop and establish a policy. Your company policy should clearly define sexual harassment, list several examples and explain procedures for filing complaints and company follow up. Consult the EEOC (202-663-4900 or www. eeoc.gov).
- Have a clear procedure for filing complaints. Employees should have a non-threatening process in place to report an incident, or to discuss any behavior they feel is unprofessional. Stress confidentiality and that you, the employer, will not tolerate retaliation against any employee for coming forward. Give all employees the names and phone numbers of human resources and other staff to contact.
- Provide harassment training. Many managers aren’t sure how to handle a claim of sexual harassment. Provide training for management and staff so they clearly understand what harassment is, how to prevent it and how to handle an incident.
- Investigate every complaint. Take immediate action when informed of an incident. Carefully research the allegations and respond with the appropriate actions. Seek outside counsel if necessary.