Training Employees to Recognize and Prevent Sexual Harassment

When workers are subjected to sexual harassment, engagement, productivity and morale suffer. It can be a touchy subject, but it’s important. Keep reading to learn more about how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Training Employees to Recognize and Prevent Sexual Harassment

Here's what you need to know about training employees to recognize and prevent sexual harassment:

  • Employees must be confident their concerns will be heard and acted upon as quickly as possible.
  • Leadership sets the tone and the example in business.
  • If employees are being harassed, they should be confident their company has their support.

Sexual harassment diminishes your company’s culture and effectiveness. It also damages employees. When workers experience sexual harassment, engagement, productivity and morale suffer. Training employees to recognize and prevent sexual harassment is critical to maintaining a professional, respectful environment.

Leaders look for guidance on how to promote a culture of courtesy and respect, free from sexual harassment. To achieve a sexual harassment-free workplace, employees must know the law and be empowered to stand up for their rights. The commitment has to be clear and employees well-informed.

Provide training

Companies may look to outsource sexual harassment prevention training or develop it in-house. There are options at virtually every price point if you’re planning on buying a program. Many of them are industry-specific.

For example, retailers and food service workers are among the highest reporters of sexual harassment, according to the EEOC. Training is available for these industries, as well as many others. Some programs are low- to no-cost, while others have a higher price point.

According to the EEOC, retailers and food service workers are among the highest reporters of sexual harassment.

For many SMBs, Leadership develops training and presents it to employees in meetings or through coursework. Some leaders use the training they’ve received to create a customized program. Others look online for guidance.

While many resources are available, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a good starting point. The EEOC is the agency responsible for regulating and investigating workplace sexual harassment.

In their Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment guidance, the EEOC suggests a 4-pronged approach. The associated concepts outline how an organization can build, promote, and maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment.

Leadership and accountability

It begins with leadership sending a strong message throughout the company that sexual harassment is:

  • Illegal
  • Unprofessional
  • Intolerable

Any employee found to have harassed another will be held accountable for their actions, up to and including termination if warranted.

Your commitment and messaging must be clear.

‘We have a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. Additionally, no harasser is immune from punitive action.’

Clear policy in place

Support your messaging with an explicit policy that outlines your commitment to a harassment-free culture. The policy must be clear, communicated widely, and reiterated routinely. Include the policy online and in print in:

  • New hire handbooks
  • Policy manuals
  • Other communications

Require employees to read the policy and acknowledge agreement to its terms. Your message cannot be ambiguous. ‘We do not tolerate any form of sexual harassment.’

The policy must also clearly outline that retaliation against those who file a claim is unacceptable.

We assume that all employees who file a claim have done so in good faith. Filing a claim will not result in any retaliatory action against them.

Effective complaint system

If there is a breach of policy or misconduct, employees must be clearly aware of their right and responsibility to file a complaint. The system to do so must be easily accessible, confidential if necessary, and responsive.

Employees must be confident that the company will hear and act upon their claims as quickly as possible. Assure people that filing a complaint will not result in retaliation from:

  • The company
  • Their colleagues
  • The accused

Once someone files a complaint, you must pursue an immediate investigation of the charge. A comprehensive look at the complaint and any evidence will be necessary to decipher the facts and the charge’s merit. Once the individual makes an accusation, you must quickly and privately manage any warranted resulting action.

The final recommendation from the EEOC is comprehensive training

Companies need to prefer preventing sexual harassment rather than simply responding to it as it occurs. Ultimately, the workplace benefits when employees understand how to define harassment and know they are empowered to quickly stop it. Workers and the workplace will suffer if management allows sexual harassment to continue or escalate.

In some states, sexual harassment recognition and prevention training are mandatory for managers. In others, staff members are also included in required training classes.

Whether or not there is legislation in your area, sexual harassment recognition and prevention training are vital to a respectful workplace. Providing training is best practice regardless of whether regulators require it. In many cases, training can be an affirmative defense if a claim is filed with an outside agency.

There are many training options available, from online classes to in-house presentations. If purchasing an existing program, businesses should offer the best quality training they can afford. It’s a small investment that can have a significant return in the form of a professional workplace, higher morale and engagement, and reduced risks of claims or lawsuits.

Rights and responsibilities

Training must outline the company’s strict policies and inform staff that all employees have the right to a workplace free of sexual harassment.

Policies need to include statements such as:

  • Workers are not required to accept any behavior that creates a hostile work environment or establishes a quid pro quo situation.
  • No tolerance or rejection of sexual acts, demands, or behaviors may impact any worker’s conditions of employment.
  • No one needs to fear or be concerned about retaliation as a result of filing a complaint regarding sexual harassment.

Training should also include that a professional workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Management cannot be in all places at all times. Underscore that the expectation is that workers:

  • Conduct themselves professionally
  • Respond immediately to inappropriate behavior
  • Report sexual harassment if it continues

These policies apply to bystanders who witness harassment as well as victims.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment training defines the act as unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. It can happen in any company to any employee, regardless of status or tenure. Harassers come in the form of:

  • Coworkers
  • Managers
  • Partners
  • Clients
  • Vendors

No matter the source of the harassment, if it happens in the workplace, staff must report it, and employers must intervene.

Not including or singling out a coworker based on their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a practice that is hurtful, illegal, and destructive to teams and workplace cohesion. Covert behavior is also a form of sexual harassment.

Harassment can take the form of welcome behavior between 2 workers that is unwelcome among their peers. Case in point: Staff members who exhibit showy public displays of affection are not harassing each other. However, colleagues who have to witness the behavior may be uncomfortable. At this point, it rises to the level of harassment.

Another form of sexual harassment is exclusionary. Not including or singling out a coworker based on their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a practice that is hurtful, illegal, and destructive to teams and workplace cohesion. Covert behavior is also a form of sexual harassment.

Harassment can be a one-off that’s particularly egregious, or it can be commonplace and pervasive. Attempting to normalize the behavior happens in some instances. Someone may offer a common excuse such as: ‘they don’t mean anything by it. That’s just how they are.’ But the intent is not a determining factor. If another person feels harassed, prohibit the behavior.

Types of sexual harassment

Train employees to recognize that sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances or conduct on the job that creates an:

  • Intimidating
  • Offensive
  • Hostile work environment

Sexual harassment also includes demands for sexual favors (typically from supervisory staff) in exchange for continued employment or favorable work conditions. This ‘quid pro quo’ type of harassment may also work in reverse. There cannot be any negative impact on an employee’s employment should they refuse to submit to sexual advances or file a complaint.

Many businesses understand the challenge of preventing sexual harassment is that can be subjective. It’s up to each individual to determine the threshold of behavior they feel is acceptable.

Following are some forms of sexual harassment:

  • Verbal comments, slurs, jokes, sexual advances, or propositions
  • Degrading actions based on a person’s gender, sexual orientation
  • Sexually explicit language and jokes
  • Physical touching of a sexual or suggestive nature, assault, impeding or blocking another person’s movements
  • Tolerance of or agreement to sexual conduct as a condition of employment
  • Messaging or imagery of sexual nature, either shared or in an employee’s workspace
  • Retaliation against an individual who filed a formal or informal complaint

This list is in no way exhaustive. There’s no complete, definitive list of what is and what isn’t harassment. Many businesses understand the challenge of preventing sexual harassment is that can be subjective. It’s up to each individual to determine the threshold of behavior they feel is acceptable.

Some acts are clearly unprofessional; never allow or tolerate them:

  • Distributing pornographic materials
  • Physically assaulting a coworker

Others actions may or may not be sexual harassment, depending on the parties involved.

An ‘aha’ moment

The challenge for employers is to remind staff that sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder. Certain behaviors are acceptable to some, but not others. The behavior is unacceptable if a colleague is uncomfortable, no matter the offender’s intent.

This can be a difficult lesson for employees. They often judge what’s appropriate or not based on their standards and tolerances. When training, it’s essential to turn the tables and ask employees to consider if their acts are welcome or if they could be regarded as sexual harassment.

An eye-opening quiz could be helpful.

Checking for understanding

Attached is a Sexual Harassment Quiz. Ask employees to rate each scenario from 1 to 5 during a training session or on their own time. A rating of 5 would represent ‘egregious sexual harassment.’ A 1 rating would not be harassment at all. Ask them to total their score for the 10 short examples.

Then ask them to re-take the quiz from a different point of view. They should imagine that their 18-year-old child, niece, or nephew came home from the first day of their very first job. When asked what happened at work, they report the exact scenarios reflected on the quiz.

Does the employee rate the youth’s experiences the same? Would they be comfortable or outraged if the youngster were exposed to the behavior?

Their responses could be an epiphany. Recognizing that some behavior is inappropriate for some audiences could change how they treat coworkers. It’s an ‘aha moment’ for many employees. They learn it’s not just whether they think the behavior is harassment; it matters whether the person experiencing the behavior thinks so.

Another straightforward approach is to ask employees to think about the most proper, upright person they know. It could be a:

  • Sweet, prim grandmother
  • Religious leader
  • Judge once encountered in traffic court

Advise the group that before they do or say something that might be considered harassment, they need to ask themselves if they’d do or say it to that person. If not, it might be better to keep it to themselves.

See something, say something

Sexual harassment must be responded to immediately. The longer it’s allowed to go on, the more pervasive it becomes. If an employee asks a colleague for a date once, it’s generally not considered sexual harassment. If they harangue their coworker incessantly for a date, it is. The occasional off-color joke is usually acceptable. However, a culture of ‘I’ve got one even filthier’ is not.

If employees are being harassed, they should be confident their company has their support. They should be comfortable immediately telling the person to stop the inappropriate behavior.

It doesn’t have to be confrontational. A simple ‘not cool’ or ‘NSFW’ (not safe or suitable for work) may be all that’s needed. If they’re uncomfortable or a minor correction doesn’t work, they’re not required to tolerate any other inappropriate behavior. They are encouraged to report the conduct to their supervisor or HR.

Bystanders are not exempted. If they see someone behaving inappropriately, they should intervene. If they’re uncomfortable stepping in, they should report the incident to their supervisor or HR. A professional workplace is everyone’s right, but it’s also everyone’s responsibility. If you see sexual harassment, it’s critically important to report it.

Lead by example

Sexual harassment training isn’t a one-and-done item to check off your list. It’s an ongoing commitment to a professional workplace. In addition to training new hires and those newly promoted to management staff, training should be done regularly with refresher courses for all staff.

Leadership sets the tone and the example in business.

Commit to providing training, and reinforce that commitment with routine reminders of policies. Leadership underscores that a workplace culture of respect for all staff members is expected and required.

Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace. Keeping your organization free of this toxic behavior requires:

  • A strong policy
  • Accountability
  • An environment that empowers employees to stand up for their rights and the rights of others

Training and supporting staff to recognize and report sexual harassment is critical. Your organization will reap benefits that will include a committed workforce that knows management values it. Translate that to productivity, engagement, and innovation.

The ability to work in an atmosphere of mutual consideration, without fear of harassment, can mean a dedicated workforce loyal to your company for the long term.

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