If your organization approaches sexual harassment training only at time of hire with a review of and signature on your sexual harassment policy, you may be risking a great deal.
A Queens, New York, jury recently awarded $15 million to a nurse who was allegedly harassed by a physician over a 12-year period. Janet Bianco, 55, alleged that although she was bombarded with increasingly inappropriate behavior escalating to a final incident which, she alleges, constituted sexual assault, the hospital allegedly tolerated the doctor’s behavior until the assault. Although hospital officials contend they were unaware of Miller’s behavior, the jury said, “Maybe not.” Ordering the physician, Dr. Matthew Miller, 61, and the Flushing hospital to split the cost of the verdict, this decision has been called the largest of its kind in New York. The verdict is a message that should be heard by organizations, whether or not they’re involved in the medical field. Sexual harassment is still alive and well.
What can your organization do? First, your legal counsel, a human resource professional, or your risk manager should review your policy to determine whether it’s adequate. Next, ensure that all employees receive a copy of the policy and confirm receipt with their signature. Also, set up a confidential reporting structure and ensure employees who report incidents are not penalized for doing so. Even the appearance of a penalty — for example, transferring the complainant and not the perpetrator — can cost your organization.
Instituting training as part of a new employee’s onboarding process is an excellent idea, but does not go far enough. Reminder training every few years can help employees feel comfortable in reporting problems before they become EEOC complaints. Since 2006, California businesses with 50 or more employees have been required to provide sexual harassment training to their employees every two years, which is a good time table to use as a benchmark. It is especially important to train supervisors who may be involved in the investigation, and, when warranted, to take corrective action when harassment is alleged or occurs. A strong policy and training is your best defense against sexual harassment allegations.
If you don’t have the talent within your organization to train, there are many consultants who can provide the training. Or consider sending one of your top human resources or risk personnel to advanced training so they can train in house. If you’re thinking of developing your own training program, take a look at this training designed by the New York Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. Online training can help you design your own program in-house, but be sure that your trainer is fully versed in the laws of your state before he or she embarks.
Hiring a consultant may be your first line of defense, because the cost to defend a sexual harassment lawsuit can runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hiring an expert may be the biggest return on investment you get in decades if you eliminate just one allegation or lawsuit.