Reduce your exposure

In recent days the headlines in the newspapers and on the evening news have been dominated with reports about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and the Penn State child molestation case. In both cases, we have a runaway train that is about to jump the tracks.

The long-term damage is yet to be determined, but Herman Cain has lost ground in the national polls, and Penn State has fired head football coach Joe Paterno and two other high-ranking officials. Reputations that took years to build are damaged beyond repair, and lawyers are preparing their briefs for civil and criminal court cases.

Could this happen to you at your business? The answer is, yes. If you don’t take some simple steps to protect your business, you could be at risk for these types of claims.

Every business needs to have policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment in place to guide their employees and executives when these situations arise. It is important for a business to have at least two ways of reporting hostile work environment and sexual harassment claims.

First, you need to understand exactly what constitutes sexual harassment or what conditions create a hostile work environment. If you go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s web site,, you will find these definitions: “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.”

Next, take the proper preventive steps. Clear policies and procedures for reporting this type of behavior are the best tools to reduce the potential sexual harassment occurrences in the workplace. You need as an employer to take these steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment in your work place. You should clearly communicate to all your employees that both types of sexual harassment (quid pro quo and hostile work environment) will not be tolerated. You can do this by providing sexual harassment training to your managers, supervisors and employees. In addition, you need to establish an effective complaint or grievance process and take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.

The EEOC requires that you respond and investigate all complaints. When an employer receives a complaint or otherwise learns of alleged sexual harassment in the workplace, the employer should investigate promptly and thoroughly. The EEOC states at the web site: “The employer should take immediate and appropriate corrective action by doing whatever is necessary to end the harassment, make the victim whole by restoring lost employment benefits or opportunities, and prevent the misconduct from recurring.”

But one important question remains unanswered. How do you as the employer find out that someone has been harassed or a hostile work environment exists? As stated earlier, a complaint process needs to be in place so that your employees can confidentiality report a violation of the company policy. Some companies use a “hot line” to their EAP (Employee Assistance Program) others have an internal reporting process through the immediate supervisor or the Human Resources department. Using either process should result with an immediate response and investigation.

I suggest you follow these guidelines:

Start an investigation as soon as the complaint is filed.

Notify the appropriate company officials and your employment lawyer.

Conduct an interview with the complainant and document the conversation.

Interview all the witnesses.

Take the necessary steps to protect the complaining employee from further harassment / retaliation, for example a change in schedule or department.

Inform the accused of the complaint(s) that have been received about his or her conduct.

Allow the accused harasser to respond to those complaint(s).

Take the disciplinary action required by policy or suggested by your attorney.

Contact the complaining employee after resolving the matter to ensure that the unwarranted conduct has ceased.

If you have a union, there is a good chance that this process will be initiated by the receipt of a grievance. If that is the case, then involve the shop steward or business agent in the interview process. They can also be of assistance when you are collecting information from witnesses. 

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