Spotlight on workplace sexual harassment: how employers can prepare in 2019

If there is one issue business owners will remember in 2018, it’s the flurry of sexual misconduct allegations that have swept the nation and shaken the American workplace. Between accusations of celebrities, politicians and corporate executives, the resulting #MeToo movement has kept this important issue in the glaring national spotlight. Now more than ever, business owners need to know how to handle sexual allegations that may arise in the workplace.

This is only the beginning of a shift in the culture that will continue to place additional pressure on employers to ensure policies on prevention, reporting and reaction to sexual harassment disclosures are appropriate and effective. It is also a time of opportunity – a chance for organizations to lead the way and make positive, long lasting changes in the workplace.

Demonstrate leadership
Even if an organization has been spared any upheaval surrounding sexual harassment, future risks can be minimized by updating policies and continuously enhancing harassment prevention strategies.

Companies also should take a close look within and ensure their culture truly reflects a zero tolerance for harassment of any kind. A big part of this is making sure that employees feel comfortable and safe stepping forward when harassment occurs. Systems should be in place that provide employees with multiple options for making a complaint without fear of retaliation, especially if the person they ultimately report to is the alleged harasser.

Prevalence of sexual harassment by industry sector

Monitor social media
Not all sexual harassment allegations are hushed behind closed doors. As we have seen, companies can first learn of an incident through the press or social media. Regardless of how a claim comes to light, it is important for employers to take all allegations seriously and act quickly. Regular monitoring of social media feeds is also a good idea.

Regarding process, all sexual harassment complaints require proactive and thorough investigation. Even when an employer is made aware of an incident of harassment via an online post, human resources should get involved immediately and investigate.

The company should first identify who made the post and determine when the alleged behavior occurred and where. If the victim of the harassment is easily identified in the post and is a current employee, HR should immediately reach out and provide the employee the opportunity to share their story. After further investigation, if the evidence warrants, swift remedial or disciplinary action should be taken. Depending upon the severity and pervasiveness of the conduct and whether the harasser is a person with the authority to hire, discipline and fire, this can include termination of employment.

If the individual making the claim is not easily identified in the online post or is no longer an employee, the company can be proactive and issue a communication to all employees to serve as a reminder that sexual harassment of any kind is strictly prohibited. Employers can also use the message to go over internal complaint procedures and encourage anyone who feels harassed to come forward without fear.

Training remains the first line of defense against sexual harassment. Formal anti-harassment education should be rolled out at least once per year for existing employees and during onboarding for all new hires. Every company is different and the frequency should be adjusted based on the needs of the organization and its people. Innovations in this area are likely as companies look for more effective and creative approaches to prevent harassment.

Looking ahead to 2019
The headlines about sexual harassment have not changed the actual rules. What was prohibited conduct before is still prohibited and in some cases against the law. The difference now is the level of attention that harassment claims require, how we define harassment in the workplace, how claims will be handled and how we treat those who are involved. The spotlight on this issue is harsh but presents a glowing opportunity for companies to do better. Employers can reinforce HR best practices that are in place, and take the lead to create new ways to ensure workplaces are free of harassment and unlawful discrimination. The time to do so is right now.

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