Sexual harassment

March 1, 2003 By    

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that are connected to decisions about employment or advancement or that create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” Employers have an affirmative duty to prevent and eliminate such behavior.

However you define it, it is an issue of power. A supervisor’s behavior is seen as considerably more serious and threatening than the same action by a co-worker, and male bosses are less likely than female ones to recognize harassment in its subtler forms.

Sexual harassment, or a “hostile work environment,” exists in some form, and at some time or other, during the life of almost every company — large or small.

Until recently, awareness of sexual harassment has been low in the propane industry. But people have become more sensitive to it as more women have arrived in the industry, at levels of authority, as highly competent employees and owners.

According to the EEOC, the legal watchdog for sexual harassment complaints, employers have an affirmative duty to prevent and eliminate sexual abuse, or the appearance of an offensive or hostile work environment. Additionally, the employer is responsible for misbehavior by supervisory personnel, their assistants, coworkers or outside personnel of any kind.

Unfortunately, the perceived seriousness of the harassment seems to depend on who is making the unwanted advances, the degree of interpreted intent and the victim’s perception of the consequences. As a result, each company must have a clearly written and thoroughly understood policy against sexual harassment.

In addition, every employee in the company should not only buy into this policy, but also should have a copy of the policy in his or her own employee handbook.

Although the policy has been defined and employees have been informed, hostile situations can still occur. Because of their position of authority, owners and managers can deter harassment by implementing a number of preventive measures, such as the following:

  • Hold in-office, consciousness-raising seminars to inform all employees
    of the consequences of this type of behavior.
  • Assign responsibility for harassment cases to the owner/operator or other
    high-level manager. This person should have the ear and respect of senior
    management and have credibility in other issues as well.
  • There should be an emphasis on support and confidential conciliation.

Preventing sexual harassment in the company

  • Avoid references to an employee’s physical appearance.
  • Avoid comments about sex in general and certainly in any specific reference.
  • Avoid physical contact with employees ­ respect an individual’s personal
  • Use appropriate settings when conducting meetings outside of your place
    of business.
  • Be conscious that “no” means “no,” no matter how softly it is spoken.

Four items your company’s anti-sexual harassment policy must include.

If these four things are not covered, your company does not have a policy.
In addition to the policy, you should provide a neutral third party to
whom complaints can be taken.

1. The policy should state the company’s unequivocal opposition not
only to sexual harassment, but to any type of discrimination.

2. The policy must provide a definition of sexual harassment.

3. It should include a procedure for employees to follow, should they
feel they have been harassed.

4. The policy needs to state that any harassment complaints will be
addressed in an appropriate manner.

Avoiding costly mistakes in harassment investigations

1. Select an objective, articulate representative to conduct the investigation.

2. Investigate promptly.

3. Investigate thoroughly by obtaining information directly from participants
without attorneys or third parties present.

4. Interview the alleged harasser by discussing each specific element
of the complaint.

5. Interview other witnesses by talking to third parties with knowledge
of the events.

6. Provide interim relief for the alleged victim.

7. Take appropriate action by reviewing investigation findings with
human resources, and/or legal council, if warranted.

8. Communicate the decision in a confidential memo to each party.

9. Follow up to ensure that the matter has been resolved and that there
has been no recurrence of sexual harassment.

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