Given the national climate and the widespread impact of the #metoo movement, creating a sexual harassment prevention program has never been as important as at this moment. Here are some best practices for a harassment prevention program initiative, taken from the recent webinar offered by HCCS, a HealthStream Company—“Preventing Sexual Harassment: The Importance of Workplace Training.” Attendees learned from business and employment law attorney Jennifer Kearns, a partner at Duane Morris, what is involved in creating a strong sexual harassment prevention program.
Create an Official Policy to Prevent Sexual Harassment
Kearns advised that organizations put together a policy that prohibits all forms of unlawful harassment. Kearns explained that many smaller employers fail to have a written policy, and she warned, “If you ever get a claim of unlawful harassment or discrimination, and it is filed with an administrative agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), they are almost always going to ask for your written policy on harassment and discrimination.” Not having one looks terrible and is not the right answer to this request.
What’s In the Policy?
Kearns pointed out that “The policy language is really important” and should include “all protected classes; not only sexual, but race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, etc.” She recommended that the policy distinguish between unlawful harassment and discrimination, and specifically define (with concrete examples) the kinds of acts that can constitute unlawful sexual harassment.
Deliver the Policy to Employees and Verify Their Acknowledgement
There are multiple times to distribute your policy to employees. One is at the time of hire, where you can give them a copy and obtain a signature and acknowledgement in return. Kearns advised that employers say, “Take whatever time you need right now to read this. I’m going to want you to sign it, but I don’t want you to sign it until you’ve read it in full.” She warned that defendants’ claims are often that they were rushed into signing a policy they did not understand. Kearns also recommended disseminating your anti-harassment policy periodically, whether quarterly by email to all employees or regularly as an insertion with wage statements. She added that “during any employee or management training sessions that are appropriate for this kind of content, you could mention it again there.”
Train Supervisors and Managers about Handling Issues and Complaints
Kearns emphasized the importance of appropriate and thorough training of managers and supervisors, because “supervisors of companies can create strict liability for the company with their behavior.” Managers and supervisors who engage in unlawful harassment put an organization in serious risk, which could result in the company’s being liable for significant damages, even if the leaders at the top of the organization had no idea harassment of any sort was going on.
Another reason that managers and supervisors need to be trained is “because often they’re the first-line buffer between the alleged victim and a lawsuit.” One way to protect the organization is to make sure managers and supervisors understand the buzz words. For example, Kearns offered the statement, “I don’t want to work with him. He creeps me out.” If managers don’t understand that this is something that they should escalate to HR, you may be losing a chance to manage the situation before it becomes a lawsuit. Managers and supervisors need also to be prepared to do “prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations of sexual and other unlawful harassment claims, as well as know how to go about taking appropriate corrective action.”
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