Tree Talk: HR Corner: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment – it’s a subject that is sensitive and uncomfortable. Most companies would like to avoid it all together, but there is no way to get around it. To act wisely, companies need to understand the issues of sexual harassment. They need to be aware of the various types of sexual harassment and how to recognize victims of sexual harassment. Companies must also know how they can protect themselves and institute a company-wide sexual harassment policy.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines define sexual harassment generally as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

There are two major types of sexual harassment recognized by Federal law:

Quid Pro Quo: Under the quid pro quo form of harassment, a person in authority, usually a supervisor, demands sexual favors of a subordinate as a condition of getting or keeping a job benefit.1

Hostile Work Environment: A hostile work environment arises when a co-worker or supervisor, engaging in unwelcome and inappropriate sexually based behavior, renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile or offensive.2

However, there are other forms of harassment that can bring about legal action. Courts are likely to find cases that include sexual propositions, pornography, extremely vulgar language, sexual touching, degrading comments or embarrassing questions, or jokes to be sexual harassment.3

The problem of sexual harassment can affect all types of businesses and extend from part-time employees to upper management. No supervisor or employee should ever sensibly ignore the problem. From general staff to supervisors, everyone employed within your business should be able to recognize whether someone’s being physically threatened or humiliated, or someone’s actions are unreasonably interfering with an employee’s work performance – all things that can constitute sexual harassment.

When such harassment occurs, employees have the legal right to take their employer to court. Employers are not always automatically liable for the sexual harassment that has occurred at their establishment; however, absence of notice or action regarding the conduct can result in liability.

Employers, therefore, are well advised to observe the EEOC’s guidelines on this issue. Under these guidelines, employers are liable when either their supervisors or agents create a hostile environment, or if the employer knew or should have known of the sexual harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.

According to the EEOC, employers are usually deemed to know of sexual harassment if it is: (1) openly practiced in the workplace; (2) well-known among employees; or (3) brought to the employer’s notice by a victim’s filing a charge.4

Employers may protect themselves from liability by taking the right steps to preventing, recognizing and eliminating sexual harassment from their establishment. To do so, businesses need to institute a comprehensive, detailed and responsible sexual harassment policy.

The EEOC encourages employers to take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Suggestions from the EEOC include expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their rights and how to express concerns with issues of harassment.5

The first step to creating a comprehensive sexual harassment policy is composing a detailed written policy on sexual harassment. The CEO/owner should issue the policy and make it a high priority of the company.

  • A basic policy should set forth the following:6
  • An express commitment to eradicate and prevent sexual harassment
  • A definition of sexual harassment
  • An explanation of penalties (including termination) the employer will impose for  substantiated sexual harassment conduct
  • A detailed outline of the grievance procedure employees should use or contact persons  available for consultation
  • An express commitment to keep all sexual harassment complaints and personnel actions confidential

Employers then need to distribute the policy to all workers, supervisors and even non-employees who act as suppliers, outside vendors, etc. It should be circulated widely within the company. Companies should always provide copies of their sexual harassment policy to newly hired employees, in addition to posting copies throughout the office and break areas.

Employees should be educated about the natures of sexual harassment. Examples of behaviors that are considered inappropriate include posting suggestive photographs, telling sexual jokes, making innuendoes or romancing subordinates, informing your employee of the consequences for these actions can be accomplished by reviewing the company’s sexual harassment policy together.7

Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is not an easy task; it requires all those employed to be responsible, knowledgeable and invested in sexual harassment prevention. In the long run, companies who understand the ongoing and growing risk sexual harassment can present to their business can benefit from increased worker productivity, higher employee morale and a renowned public image because a company that takes a no-tolerance position against sexual harassment only stands to gain from it.

* Note: It is recommended that businesses work closely with their legal advisors to be certain they have adopted an appropriate and complete sexual harassment policy.

1,2 2011. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
3 2011. Preventing Harassment in the Work Place. preventing_harassment.ppt
4,5,6,7 Roberts & Mann. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Primer. http://