Every employee and employer has a responsibility to provide a safe and equitable workplace for all. The presence of sexual harassment in an office environment—and sometimes even sexual assault—is tacit proof that an employer has failed to follow through with this responsibility. If sexual harassment is an ingrained part of the culture at your business, it can also result in legal action. In 2016, for instance, a teenager who had previously worked at Chipotle won a $7.6 million sexual harassment and abuse lawsuit against the restaurant.
The best way for all of us to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is to recognize the signs and improve company policies. Here are nine things your business can do to stay ahead of the curve.
1. Use your background check process to dig into candidate histories
Curbing workplace sexual harassment often starts at hiring. Building a team of respectful people will diminish the likelihood of inappropriate behavior occurring on your premises. To help spot candidates who don’t respect boundaries, use your background check process to its full effect. Many companies only run criminal history searches, and while convictions for rape or sexual assault are definite red flags, they aren’t the only ways to spot a potential risk.
Do reference checks. Talk to former employers and supervisors. Ask about workplace behavior and relationships. Inquire about reasons for leaving. If a candidate has had a problem with sexual harassment in the past, that issue is likely to repeat in the future. Spotting those patterns in the screening process is essential.
2. Watch your interview questions
Companies and employees struggling with sexual harassment claims need to acknowledge that they might be part of the problem. Start by looking at the interview questions you or your hiring managers are asking. If any of your questions pertain to things like gender, sexual orientation, or race, you need to re-evaluate. Similarly, if you are interviewing male and female applicants differently, you need to ask yourself why that is. An atmosphere of sexism or discrimination at the workplace breeds sexual harassment. Killing that atmosphere starts at the top.
3. Know the law
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is meant to protect employees and candidates against workplace discrimination. The bad news is that the law does not specify what does or does not qualify as harassment in the workplace. The good news is that the Supreme Court has provided some clarity, classifying unlawful workplace harassment as anything “sufficiently severe or pervasive” that results in a hostile workplace environment. Knowing the law will help you understand your responsibility and liability.
4. Know your handbook
Businesses have the right to define sexual harassment more strictly and specifically than the law does. Terms like “hostile work environment” and “sufficiently severe or pervasive” are open to interpretation. Using your employee handbook to outline specific actions that qualify as sexual harassment—from obscene jokes to inappropriate touching to unwanted romantic or sexual advances—is beneficial for three reasons. First, it gives employees a better idea of what kind of behavior is over the line. Second, it gives victims a recourse for reporting incidents. And third, it identifies your business as one that is staunchly opposed to workplace sexual harassment.
5. Understand your responsibilities
Employers are legally and ethically required to investigate all allegations of sexual harassment or assault. If an employee comes to you claiming he or she has been sexually harassed, your personal judgment of that person’s truthfulness is irrelevant. No matter what, you must conduct a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of the accusations.
6. Know what counts as a sexual harassment allegation
Your obligation to investigate sexual harassment or assault allegations do not start and end with victim accounts. If a victim reports an assault or harassment issue, that event should trigger investigation. However, a victim account is not the only investigation trigger. Employers are obligated to investigate rumors, gossip, and reports from non-involved employees. An abuse allegation does not have to come from the alleged victim’s mouth to be worthy of investigation.
7. Keep your eyes and ears open
All higher-ups at your company—including bosses, managers, supervisors, and human resources managers—need to be on the lookout for sexual harassment or assault. Keep tabs on employee relationships, especially if they appear to become personal. Listen for jokes or stories that aren’t appropriate for the workplace. Watch for employees who are inappropriately touching their co-workers; even a worker touching a fellow employee’s arm or shoulder can be a warning sign, so don’t discount it. Being conscious of what is happening in your workplace will help you spot issues that should prompt further investigation.
8. Provide multiple ways for employees to report allegations
Your company’s policies on sexual harassment and assault are only as good as your reporting system. Outline in the employee handbook how employees should make reports. Most importantly, make sure you provide more than one point of contact that your workers can go to if they have concerns. There is always the chance that someone you’ve designated as a point of contact will become an alleged perpetrator. Making it clear that employees can report issues to supervisors, managers, bosses, or HR will encourage more people to come forward with reports.
If an employee does report an instance of sexual harassment or assault, listen. Have the person tell his or her entire story, from start to finish. You want to know what happened, where it happened, when it happened, how it happened, and who was involved. Assure the employee that he or she will not face adverse action or retaliation for making a report. Finally, take detailed notes and ask for clarification if you are confused about anything in the employee’s story. This account will form the backbone to your investigation, so you need to make sure that it is thorough and accurate.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment and sexual assault occur in the modern workplace. By observing the best practices listed above, you can make sure that your business isn’t letting these issues fly under the radar.
Michael Klazema has been developing products for criminal background check and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.