Preventing and responsibly addressing claims of sexual harassment is a key component of maintaining a welcoming environment and a successful workplace. Sexual harassment can be defined as any unwanted advance or conduct that contributes to the creation of a hostile work environment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title 24, Chapter 17, Virgin Island Code, sexual harassment is regarded as a form of discrimination.
Because any type of unwanted conduct may be considered sexual harassment as long as someone feels uncomfortable, it can take on many forms — from direct verbal harassment to the posting of sexually suggestive materials in the office or online. A person need not even be the target of harassment to file a complaint, a fact that should give pause to anyone thinking they are only engaging in harmless banter.
Not surprisingly, the fact that such an enormous range of actions and behaviors can fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment means that employers put themselves at considerable risk by failing to prevent it. The following are several key steps employers should take to reduce the possibility of sexual harassment occurring and appropriately respond to situations as they arise:
Establish a clear policy toward sexual harassment: Putting a sexual harassment policy in writing in your employee handbook communicates to everyone in the organization that harassment will not be tolerated. An effective policy should include a definition of sexual harassment and procedures to be followed in filing and investigating claims. It should also clearly state the consequences of sexual harassment, which may include disciplinary measures and even loss of employment.
Train everyone in your organization: Your staff members need to be able to recognize sexual harassment when it’s happening, and they should understand the procedures for reporting and investigating claims. Separate trainings should be held for employees and supervisors to address the specific procedures involved in handling sexual harassment claims, as their roles will be different from one another.
Assume that all claims should be taken seriously: One of the surest ways to implement a successful sexual harassment policy — and avoid having to deal with claims very often — is by making it clear that all complaints will be treated in a serious manner. Following through on this promise is essential to establishing a safe, positive workplace free of sexual harassment.
It is almost impossible to completely eradicate the risk of sexual harassment from any given workplace. But by establishing, clearly communicating and strictly following procedures for preventing and handling sexual harassment claims, you can at least make your work environment safer and more welcoming for your employees.
BoltNagi is a well-established and respected business and employment law firm serving clients throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.