Sexual harassment refresher – set policy and stick to it

Wood County employees attend sexual harassment webinar.

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

 

The workshop was intended to keep county governments from getting “caught with their proverbial pants down.”

“I realize that is not a good metaphor considering the topic,” said attorney Marc Fishel on the sexual harassment webinar earlier this month sponsored by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Wood County government already makes sexual harassment part of its new employee orientation, and has policies in its employee handbook. But officials felt this was a good time for a refresher course.

“We’ve been addressing this for many years,” said Pam Boyer, human resources manager with the county commissioners’ office. “This is a good reminder.”

“We don’t see these things and not do something about it,” Boyer said.

The webinar, titled “Top 10 Dos and Don’ts of Sexual Harassment,” was attended by 64 Wood County employees.

Fishel, who regularly represents public employers throughout Ohio on employment related issues, presented the webinar. He started out stating the obvious.

“Don’t have a lock on your desk that doesn’t let out a person, ala Matt Lauer.”

“Don’t walk around naked in your office, ala Charlie Rose,” he said. “If you can avoid those, that’s a good start.”

“Don’t invite someone to your hotel room and answer in your robe, ala Harvey Weinstein.”

But beyond blatant offenses, the lines may get blurry for some people. Fishel tried to clear up any confusion.

While discrimination based on sex is illegal, “there is no law that prevents sexual harassment,” he said. So it’s up to employers to make the rules.

Employers need to set expectations for the workplace, enforce rules that prevent sexual harassment and respond appropriately if it does occur, Fishel said. Employers should not set the bar too low – believing that behavior is acceptable as long as it doesn’t violate the law.

“You don’t want that to be your standard,” Fishel said. “The goal is to eradicate this kind of inappropriate conduct. Don’t wait till it rises to the level of ‘Oh crap – we could get sued.’”

Set and stick by strong policies

Employers must go further than set the right sexual harassment policies, Fishel said. They must take those policies seriously, make them clear to employees, make it easy for employees to report problems, and must not retaliate against those reporting wrongdoing.

“Distribute the policy and educate the employees on the policy,” he said. Then, every so often, redistribute the policy, do re-education, and ask for questions.

“Train and retrain on the policy and workplace expectations,” he said.

Of course, that does not mean employers are in the clear.

“If the employer does everything right, they may get sued,” Fishel said. But employers can better defend themselves if they set up safeguards against sexual harassment.

Use those policies

Once those policies are in place, they must be enforced.

“Don’t ignore allegations or signs of a problem,” he said. “You don’t want this stuff going on in the workplace.”

Once employers hear about sexual harassment problems, they must act.

“Your obligation as the employer is to determine what has happened and take remedial action to fix it,” Fishel said. “You must take the action necessary to ensure the harassment ends.”

Employers should not just throw up their arms, defining a problem as a “he said, she said” issue. The employer is responsible for taking appropriate action.

“Even if there is no unlawful harassment, there still could be misconduct,” Fishel said.

“You have to take this all seriously, even if it seems minor,” he said. “You can’t put something on the back burner and ignore it.”

Don’t automatically discount rumors.

“Address the issues as they arise – whether they are actual issues or workplace rumors. Sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Off-color sexual banter in the workplace should be avoided – even if co-workers believe it to be “welcomed.”

“Welcomed does not mean the woman wore a short skirt or tight pants,” Fishel said.

Work policies should extend to off-duty conduct, he advised.

Make it easy to report complaints

Sexual harassment policies should include various ways for employees to report allegations. If a supervisor is the harasser, there must be a way to circumvent that chain of command, Fishel said.

Reporting a problem should not require an employee to jump through several hoops.

“Don’t make the reporting requirements overly complicated,” he said, suggesting that verbal reporting should be enough to trigger an investigation.

And even if an employee asks management to not respond to the harassment, “you have an obligation to take action,” Fishel said.

Employers should establish policies stating that employees have no right to privacy on their work computers or work phones. Social media posts may be monitored.

Don’t blame the victim

It is the responsibility of the employer to make sure there is no retaliation against a whistle blower, he added.

“Don’t blame and shame the victim,” Fishel said.

All steps of an investigation should be documented, with the findings and any action being reported to the alleged victim, Fishel said.

Fishel cautioned those in management positions to not send inappropriate messages about sexual harassment.

“Be aware of your behavior as supervisors and elected officials,” he said. “Don’t send mixed messages. You need to be careful how you act in the workplace.”

Fishel stressed that all workplace relationships are not prohibited, and that not every report calls for a full investigation. “Don’t over-react,” he said.

Employees should avoid these common misconceptions, he said:

  • “He is too valuable” to demote or fire over sexual harassment.
  • Only women can be victims of sexual harassment.
  • “We can’t do anything about ‘he said – she said’ situations.” There may not be enough facts for discipline, but the suspected perpetrator can be put on notice.
  • “She can handle it herself.” It’s the employer’s responsibility to defend employees from harassment in the workplace.

Some sexual harassers just do not get it, Fishel said. So sometimes the following questions can help them grasp the seriousness of their acts.

“Ask, ‘Would you want your spouse or daughter to be exposed to this conduct in the workplace?’ Or ‘Are you OK if your behavior ends up in the newspaper?’”

“That can hit home,” Fishel said.

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