The trending in workplace sexual harassment cases reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has steadily declined in the past decade, with women in-particular filing fewer complaints.
Despite this encouraging fact, the impact on a small business should it face a sexual harassment lawsuit can be devastating – both to its finances and its reputation.
No matter how many employees you have, as a business owner you need to understand and comply with sexual harassment laws – for your sake and for the sake of a professional working environment.
Below I’ve provided background on sexual harassment law, as well as tips and resources for establishing a sexual harassment policy.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment occurs when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, to another employee against his or her wishes.
The most common forms occur when promotions, benefits, or employee reviews are tied to sexual activity or when an employee experiences hostile work place harassment that makes them uncomfortable, e.g. sexually charged remarks, unwelcome advances, the display of sexually explicit images, etc.
Understanding Sexual Harassment Law
Sexual harassment law was first enacted as part of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which led to the formation of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
If one of your employees is sexually harassed, the law can hold your company liable even if the harasser is a fellow employee, client, or even a vendor. As a rule, however, you’re only considered liable if you knew about the problem and did nothing to stop it.
Basic information for small businesses about the laws enforced by EEOC can be found in its Equal Employment Guidance for Small Businesses.
When an Employer is Held Responsible for Sexual Harassment
In 1998, the Supreme Court determined that in certain instances employers can be held legally responsible for unlawful harassment by its supervisors. This was based on the premise that 1) an employer is responsible for the acts of its supervisors, and 2) employers should be encouraged to prevent harassment and employees should be encouraged to avoid or limit the harm from harassment.
The EEOC’s Guidance on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors explains the law and gives guidance on how, as an employer, you can prevent and correct harassment and how it is the duty of employees to avoid harassment by using their employers’ complaint procedures.
Examples of actions could include disciplining or firing an employee who engages in sexual harassment, or offering mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees.
Preventing & Managing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Business owners, managers and the business culture they propagate are critical components of any no-tolerance plan regarding sexual harassment.
Should harassment occur, you will need to provide evidence that you took appropriate steps to prevent and handle the incident. This is why a sexual harassment policy is critical.
Sexual harassment training programs in the workplace are a key part of any sexual harassment policy. In fact, 62 percent of U.S. businesses now offer some form of sexual harassment prevention training programs for managers and employees – and, while these programs are not mandated by law, they represent a positive step toward prevention that can also protect an employer in the event that a sexual harassment lawsuit is filed.
Read Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Primer by Barry Roberts and Richard Mann, for helpful guidance on developing and implementing a sexual harassment policy in your small business.
To summarize their recommendations – understand sexual harassment; communicate a policy; enforce a policy; establish procedures; and enforce policy.
- Business.gov’s Employment Discrimination and Harassment portal combines information about the laws that govern sexual harassment and how to comply.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Training Institute – Provides training on the anti-discrimination laws that govern the workplace, including sexual harassment. Training courses can be delivered onsite at your workplace and are customizable to meet your needs. They also provide online courses, seminars and conferences.
- Sexual Harassment – The employer’s role in prevention (American Bar Association)