Sexual harassment in the workplace is one of those issues that exists in employees’ periphery – as much as they might be aware it’s a serious problem that occurs, most are ill-prepared to deal with it firsthand. Here are six key things you should know.
1. The letter of the law might be different from the wording in your employee handbook. Workplace harassment isn’t specifically addressed in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees and job seekers against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. But the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted harassment that’s “sufficiently severe or pervasive” and that creates a hostile working environment as a violation of that federal law. According to Amy Oppenheimer, a Berkeley, California-based attorney who specializes in investigating workplace harassment, an employer’s definition of what qualifies could be more specific. So “you could violate the rules of your workplace without actually violating the law,” she says.
A sample company harassment policy from TheHRSpecialist.com states overt actions such as obscene jokes, lewd comments and touching could qualify, but so could subtle behavior such as staring and repeated requests for dates. The bottom line: If you’re not familiar with your company’s written policies, get familiar.
And don’t discount your gut feeling. “Despite some fogginess people might have on specific definitions, most people are aware of what qualifies as sexual harassment,” says Beth Brascugli De Lima, human resources consultant and founder of HRM Consulting in Murphys, California. “Their biggest concern is that they’re aware of what they’ve experienced but don’t know what to do once they’ve experienced it.”
2. The first thing to do is speak up, or better, type it up. If someone made you feel uncomfortable, the first person to speak to about it is the co-worker who made you feel that way. It’ll be awkward, but there’s a possibility he or she doesn’t realize the error and the issue can be squashed. Just make sure to have this conversation in writing. “If you have an email that confirms what’s transpired, that’s better,” Oppenheimer says. “For instance, if you’ve written, ‘Roger, when you stand so close to me during a conversation, it makes me uncomfortable. Please keep a distance,’ but then Roger continues to stand too close, you have a record started. These cases are often ‘he said, she said’ scenarios where having a record of your experience helps.”
3. You don’t have to report what’s happening to your boss. He or she could be the one with whom you’re having an issue. Or maybe your supervisor is especially close to the person behaving inappropriately. “Usually company policies dictate that you go to whomever you’re most comfortable speaking with about your situation, as long as they’re someone who is designated as responsible for taking immediate action,” De Lima says. If your company doesn’t have an on-site human resources manager, then your employee handbook probably states whom you should speak to.
Speaking of written company policy – good employers should have established procedures for making complaints that all staff have down pat. “A responsible employer regularly trains management and staff on what’s considered sexual harassment, how to prevent it and how to stop it when it occurs. Many states require it,” Oppenheimer says. “But either way, there should be some complaint mechanism for informing your HR department of what’s occurred.”
4. Employers have to remain impartial, for your sake, the accused’s sake and the company’s sake. “One of the first things someone from HR might ask you is, ‘Is it OK for me to investigate what you’ve told me further, or do you feel that I am biased in some way?’” De Lima says, and it behooves you to consider this carefully. Keep in mind that to resolve a complaint, HR will question you about what occurred, plus interview the accused employee as well as supervisors and witnesses (if there are any). The HR representative might look into your personnel records as well as those of the accused. He or she might also look into your email accounts and any other written documentation. “These investigations have to be pristine,” De Lima explains. “They impact the reputations of the accuser and the accused, and the attitudes of the workplace in general, and companies don’t want to defame someone who hasn’t done anything wrong.” If you’re worried about impartiality, De Lima says HR might suggest someone else in management, on the board or maybe even an outside consultant who may come in to investigate your claim.
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