Guest Blog: Five Best Practices for Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Five Best Practices for Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By: Robert Robenalt

Whenever sexual harassment allegations involving a prominent public figure like Bill O’Reilly reach mainstream media outlets, people are bound to take notice. Given that this is perhaps one of the most high-profile situation in decades involving sexual harassment, it can be expected that employee awareness about the issue will be raised for the foreseeable future. As a result, this may lead to an uptick in the number of sexual harassment claims—both meritorious and not—in the weeks and months to come.

For this reason, it’s critical that employers take proactive steps to ensure a workplace environment free of harassing behavior, and that it is prepared to promptly and thoroughly address any allegations of improper conduct that do arise.

1. Establish Effective Anti-Harassment Policies

A proactive response to preventing sexual harassment is an employer’s best defense against many harassment claims—starting with a well-written and effective anti-harassment policy for the workplace. To be most effective, the anti-harassment policy must contain:

  • A clear “zero tolerance” policy for unlawful harassment;
  • A definition of what constitutes prohibited harassment; 
  • Several examples of conduct that violate company policy; 
  • A call for employees to immediately report conduct they witness or experience that could be considered harassment; 
  • Several avenues for employees to report incidents of harassment, including alternate reporting mechanisms for situations where an immediate supervisor is involved; and 
  • A promise that employees reporting harassment will not be subject to retaliation. 

In addition, employers should be able to easily demonstrate that each new employee has access to these company policies to eliminate any doubt about whether they were properly informed.

2. Institute Company-Wide Training

It’s vitally important that employers provide training for all management and employees on both the anti-harassment policies and the prevention of sexual harassment. In addition to ensuring a review of company policies at the orientation stage for all new employees, employers should specifically train their managers on how to properly receive complaints and what steps should be taken in response, such as immediately involving human resources. In fact, many states actually require sexual harassment training in the workplace.

3. Conduct Prompt, Thorough Investigations

When a sexual harassment complaint is made, employers should be prepared to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the matter. Trained human resources professionals and/or managers should speak with the employee to quickly determine the full extent of the problem and to obtain a written account of the complaint with as much detail as possible. This will help to ensure that all allegations are investigated.

During the investigation, an impartial human resources team should ask open-ended questions to get the full story, but not be afraid to ask specific follow-ups to nail down particulars. They should also review any pertinent electronic communications—such as email and text messages—or other documentation that might be relevant.

In addition, employers should ensure that the employee making the complaint is not forced to work side-by-side with the employee who is alleged to have violated company policy. This may result in changes to work areas and supervisory chains of command during the course of the investigation.

Finally, confidentiality is key. Although employers shouldn’t promise that the complaint won’t be shared with anybody else, they can inform the accuser that every effort will be made to keep the matter as confidential as possible. However, an employer’s legal obligation to fully investigate the matter may lead to the inevitable disclosure of information.

4. Take Appropriate Corrective Action

If the investigation reveals that a violation of company policy has occurred, the employer must take immediate and appropriate corrective action to end the harassment, such as a verbal and/or written warning, suspension, mandatory training, demotion and, of course, termination of employment. Be sure to document whichever course of action is taken, and follow up with the employee to inform them of what steps were taken to prevent this same conduct in the future.

If unable to substantiate the allegations, inform the employee. Convey that you appreciate the employee bringing the matter to your attention, but that after a thorough and impartial investigation, you were unable to uncover evidence substantiating the allegations. Let the employee know he/she is welcome to lodge further complaints if similar behavior occurs, and remind the accused employee that they remain subject to company policies.

5. Involve Legal Counsel

Finally, employers should bring their legal counsel into the loop as soon as possible. In a perfect world, legal counsel should be consulted while developing anti-harassment policies—long before any situations arise. However, even if they weren’t involved at the drafting stage, it’s advisable to get legal counsel involved once a complaint is raised to ensure proper guidance for conducting the investigation and maintaining a workplace free of harassing behavior.

Robert Robenalt is a partner at the Columbus office of Fisher Phillips, a national management-side labor and employment law firm.

Robert Robenalt