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Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

I spend a lot of time working with women-led companies, and talking with women who have broken into and become very successful – I might add- in what have commonly been know as male-dominated fields. I have a daughter who is getting ready to graduate from high school and go off to college to study engineering because she wants to work on cars. I wonder how many women she will encounter in that field? It may not be a lot, but I am willing to bet that every year it will be more and more.

While this is an amazing shift in the right direction, it can also be a strain on a culture that hasn’t really been forced to change until recently with the #MeToo movement. And while many people might think sexual harassment is a compliance issue; yes, it you sexually harass someone, you aren’t following the rules, but it is also an culture issue.

First, you have to understand what sexual harassment is. Here is a great summary:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment in employment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment applies to both sexes. These acts constitute sexual harassment when any of the following occur:

  • Either explicitly or implicitly, submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of an individual’s employment.
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual.
  • The conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Examples of harassment include the following:

  • Offering an employee a benefit, such as a job, promotion, pay increase, or trip out-of-town for agreeing to sexual demands.
  • Punishing an employee for not agreeing to a sexual advance by discharging or refusing to hire the employee, assigning the employee to disagreeable tasks, not promoting the employee, or not granting the employee a salary increase.

Over the years, the courts have separated sexual harassment into two main categories:

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment. When submission to or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual.
  • Hostile or offensive work environment sexual harassment. The unwelcome sexual conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. No employment benefits need be lost or gained, and this type of harassment may be engaged in by not only management or supervisors, but also by co-workers or nonemployees.

Employees may also claim that harassing conduct constitutes unlawful misconduct under state law, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

So how do you fix it? To fix anything you have to understand what the problem is and if it’s with your culture, you need to evaluate what your culture is. Culture happens by design or by default and either way, if it has gone awry, you need to take the steps to redefine it.

First, communicate your or your company’s stance on a behavior. This doesn’t mean just sending an email, updating your handbook, or listing it with your core values; it’s all of that and more! It’s training (did you know we can give you access to sexual harassment training as well as a lot of other training courses?), it is communicating your stance – over and over again. And then again.

Second, you need a process for dealing with bad behavior. Whether it is retraining, a reprimand, or relieving that person with the poor behavior from their position within your company, it needs to be swift, consistent and well-documented.

As I mentioned above, we provide our clients with access to many training courses and certification programs. We can also help with defining your culture. I know, it’s a busy time of year, and there are a million excuses to put off thinking about – what many call – the “touchy feely” stuff (no pun intended) but many people look for other jobs because of things like sexual harassment, hostile work environments, or just plain bad culture. With what it costs and the time it takes to find, hire and integrate a new employee, can you afford not to think about the “touchy feely” stuff sooner rather than later?