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Sexual Harrassment

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Sexual Harrassment

While many men don’t understand or realize it, sexual harassment is widespread within the workplace. Many women, and yes, a few men, will experience sexual harassment during their work careers. While some victims can get beyond the negative impact of sexual harassment, others suffer severe emotional stress.

You, as an employer, need to be particularly aware of sexual harassment issues. No matter how small a business you run, no matter how much you dislike formal workplace rules—you absolutely must have a solid, enforced policy on sexual harassment.

The definition

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some states further refine this definition, and those state laws must be adhered to in addition to the federal laws.

The law

Even if you have one employee and he or she seems perfectly happy in the position, you need to consider sexual harassment and have a basic understanding of the laws that attain to it.

Sexual harassment is prohibited by federal law in all U.S. workplaces with over fifteen employees. Many state laws further reduce the size of companies that must adhere to sexual harassment regulations. Suits for damages resulted from sexual harassment may, and often are, brought against employers. While your company is liable only for the managerial behavior regarding discrimination practice, in the case of sexual harassment you are responsible for the actions of all employees.

Sexual harassment suits can generally be classified into one of two categories: “quid pro quo” and hostile environment.

A “quid pro quo” lawsuit

“Quid pro quo” harassment occurs when a coworker or supervisor pressures another employee into an unwelcome sexual activity by either promising a positive award such as a promotion, or threatening negative consequences such as dismissal. It is possible to lose a sexual harassment lawsuit even if the suggestion of sexual activity and the threat are only implicit. For example, a supervisor who repeatedly asks a subordinate for a date despite his or her repeated refusal may be deemed to be implicitly seeking sexual favors and, because of the nature of the reporting relationship, to be implicitly offering “quid pro quo.”

Even if the firm has a policy against sexual harassment, if the single “quid pro quo” situation occurs with only one supervisor, and senior management has not been informed regarding the situation, the company may be held liable for sexual harassment.

A hostile environment lawsuit

The courts are beginning to define a hostile environment using what is referred to as “a reasonable woman standard.” This is because most, but not all, sexual harassment affects women. The courts will hold an environment to be sexually hostile if the behavior is severe and/or pervasive enough for a reasonable woman to feel it is interfering with her work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for interpretation here, and the ruling of one court may differ significantly from that of another.

Because there are activities that one person may find offensive while another does not, the safest route to developing a nonhostile sexual environment within your workplace is to eliminate all activities that may cause offense. Ban sexual jokes, the posting of female calendars in men’s rooms, or even comments on dress or appearance that may pose offense to some.

And, because the courts have interpreted a hostile environment as defined by “a reasonable woman,” you need to pay quick and sharp attention to any feedback from people who feel offended within your workplace.

Policies

You should have a written policy on sexual harassment no matter how small a company yours may be. Offices that provide employment for two people, with no third party present, can create a sense of tension in some employees from the outset, and can cause the implications of comments, real or not, to be magnified. Small commercial or home office environments might more conducive to sexual harassment than would be true of a big, bustling office employing hundreds.

Your policy should specifically prohibit sexual harassment. You may wish to cite examples of what would be considered sexually harassing behavior. You should implement a grievance procedure that allows complainants to bring their complaints to someone other than their supervisor. Employees should have the option of placing grievances before either a male or a female. If you don’t have enough personnel to effectively set up a grievance committee within your organization, appoint an outsider—perhaps your attorney.

Your written policy on sexual harassment should be posted in a highly visible location and/or distributed to all employees, including new hires. You should go over your policy, verbally, in a company-wide meeting and record any such meetings.

Taking action

If a sexual harassment claim is made, it should be carefully investigated regardless of how trivial it may seen. Remember, each person has a different personal code for what he or she deems to be offensive behavior.

It is important that appropriate steps be taken against any employee whose behavior has been found to be sexually offensive. Depending upon the nature of the offense and its duration, the disciplinary action may only be a quiet closed-door chat, or it may be as extreme as termination of employment.

You absolutely must take appropriate action in sexual harassment matters, but you need to be careful that you don’t trample on the rights and respect due the alleged offender. Determining appropriate disciplinary action won’t be easy, especially if the offender denies the behavior. You should always consult with an attorney when you are facing the ramifications of a sexual harassment charge, especially if the nature of the charge is different than those you may have dealt with previously. Remember, you could end up being sued by both the victim and the alleged offender, and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that both claimants could win their legal suits!

* Source Streetwise Small Business Start-Up

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