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Sexual Harassment Policy Guidelines for the Workplace

Sticky notes marking pages in a book
Every workplace needs a clear sexual harassment policy to protect both employees and the organization. A recent study that surveyed more than 2,000 female employees revealed that, sadly, sexual harassment is still rampant in American workplaces. Statistically, harassment happens to women more frequently, but men can be victims, too. According to a recent YouGov poll, out of nearly 5,000 adults, 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed at work and one in four adults has witnessed a colleague being sexually harassed at work.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are two legally defined types:
  • Quid Pro Quo: "This for that" — sexual harassment of this type happens when a superior holds some type of reward or punishment over the head of an employee to coerce them into submitting to sexual favors.
  • Hostile Environment: This form of sexual harassment is generally more subtle. It occurs when one employee creates tension within the workplace and is hostile toward others. The workplace can become so abusive that it impacts work performance and sets victims up for further abuse.

All companies should issue a formal sexual harassment policy. However, having a written policy will not stop all forms of harassment. A strategic and consistent educational component combined with core values reflecting zero tolerance can help prevent harassment.

Developing Anti-Harassment Guidelines

When creating a sexual harassment policy, it's first critical to define what this means. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes, sexual harassment is not simply unwanted advances or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature. It also includes some form of discriminatory action taken against men and women who refuse to participate in this negative behavior. It can be insidious, like jokes that contain sexual innuendos. Or certain workplace actions like people giving back rubs or using 'pet' names. By identifying these behaviors and actions, the organization has taken the first step toward creating awareness of what is and isn't acceptable.
A sexual harassment policy also needs to be followed up with employee training. Brief modules and demonstrations of common forms of harassment can help reinforce the policy. For example, many employees don't understand how flirting at work can harm them. Role-play sessions that express how others experience these kinds of behaviors can be effective.

Identifying Sexual Harassment

Human resource and other managers should be trained to identify the signs of any inappropriate behaviors that could constitute unwanted sexual attention or abuse. Many don't see certain actions as harmful to others and may brush things off when they need to address them. These behaviors can include, but are not limited to:
  • Sexually offensive remarks, whistling, teasing, obscene email messages or notes
  • Displaying pornographic or sexually suggestive images, videos or other content
  • Unwelcome sexual touching, compliments, comments, propositions or discussions
  • Closed office meetings with members of the opposite sex that make anyone uncomfortable
  • Gender-specific demeaning remarks or actions that can harm others psychologically
  • Refusing to allow all employees to participate in career development based on gender
The sexual harassment policy needs a clear set of guidelines for reporting abuses to the proper administrative division of the company, including the union representative. Employees and management should feel comfortable disclosing events in confidence with members of the human resource team, for further investigation. No one has the right to terminate or retaliate against an employee just because sexual harassment has been reported or discussed. Management needs to swiftly follow up and deal with cases of alleged sexual harassment.

In certain blue-collar occupations, employees may think that some behaviors are acceptable because they are the norm. However, all employees need to be educated that, in the workplace, anything sexual in nature can be easily translated to harassment and should be avoided. As more women and gender-diverse adults enter nontraditional occupations, this is something that all employees need to remember. Also, be sure to have your policies, guidelines and training procedures reviewed by a legal professional.