Q: I own a graphic design firm with six employees, all of whom have been with me for awhile. Do I need a formal sexual harassment policy?
A: Although, under federal law, you are not legally required to have one, you should have one. Regardless of how large or small your company, you should take prudent steps to prevent sexual harassment. One of the best ways to do this is to have an anti-harassment policy. Below are some of the key questions associated with such a policy.
What is sexual harassment? There are two types of sexual harassment. The first is "quid pro quo." In its most basic form, this type of sexual harassment involves an employer asking an employee or a job applicant for a sexual favor in return for employment or some job benefit.
The second category is "hostile work environment." In contrast to "quid pro quo," this type of claim is more difficult to define, yet occurs more frequently. Many people may not even realize that they have been a victim of this type of harassment, or even that they may have been a harasser. Typically, a hostile work environment claim involves a supervisor, co-worker or customer making unwelcome sexual comments or remarks, or suggestively touching or acting in a sexually inappropriate way toward an employee.
What should be included in an anti-harassment policy? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) Guidelines suggest the following key elements be included:
- Clear explanation of prohibited conduct.
- Assurance that employees who make complaints or participate in an investigation of a complaint will be protected against retaliation.
- Clear description of complaint process.
- Assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of complaints to the extent possible.
- Complaint process that provides prompt, thorough and impartial investigation.
- Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate corrective action when an investigation determines that harassment has occurred.
How does an anti-harassment policy help? One of the best ways an employer can prevent claims of sexual harassment is to educate everyone on the job, and one of the easiest ways to educate everyone is to have an anti-harassment policy. You must keep in mind, though, that you should not simply announce a policy. The best and often easiest way to properly educate yourself and all employees is through a training program regarding the policy.
As the employer, you need to be informed of the law and your obligations, both of which may change as a result of new legislation and court decisions. As for supervisors, they typically have the majority of contact with the employees, and their behavior could result in liability for the employer. Thus, they need to be informed as to what could be considered inappropriate behavior and need to be trained to handle potential complaints. With respect to employees, they, too, should be informed as to what could be considered inappropriate behavior and what the potential corrective measures against such behavior include. They should also be informed of their right to raise the issue of sexual harassment, and how to raise it.
After you have properly trained everyone, follow through with the policy. This means developing appropriate sanctions, promptly investigating all allegations of harassment and taking the appropriate corrective measures in response to any investigations.
In sum, if you want to protect yourself as an employer, make it clear to your employees that you strongly disapprove of any form of harassment, including sexual harassment. The best way to do this is by implementing a policy against harassment, educating the work force regarding the policy and enforcing it.
Note: The information in this column is provided by the author, not Entrepreneur.com. All answers are general in nature, not legal advice and not warranted or guaranteed. Readers are cautioned not to rely on this information. Because laws change over time and in different jurisdictions, it is imperative that you consult an attorney in your area regarding legal matters and an accountant regarding tax matters.
Larry Rosenfeld is co-chair of the national labor and employment practice of the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP. A frequent writer and lecturer on employment law topics, Rosenfeld is experienced in the areas of federal laws pertaining to employment issues, EEOC, ADA, termination matters, employment liability and the Fair Labor Standards Act.