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In the past few months there have been too many news stories to count regarding sexual harassment. A reporter from KING 5 News contacted Resourceful HR to ask if our clients had been experiencing an increase in harassment claims. We were happy to say that hadn’t been the case. To prevent sexual harassment from occurring, preparation is vitally important.

Define sexual harassment for your workforce

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that, “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.”

An important part of preventing harassment is actively communicating what type of behavior won’t be tolerated and quickly acting on reports or notices of non-compliance. Employees look for actions—not words—when they have concerns. Facebook recently published their updated harassment policy, and shared the principles which helped guide the process. One of those included the responsibility that all employees hold to create a safe workplace.

How can you prepare?
Make sure you have an anti-harassment policy in place, and refer to the policy as well as this definition in your organization’s employee handbook and related company communications and behaviors.

Remain impartial to prevent serious business ramifications

The job of the internal human resources team is to represent the interests of the business, not individual persons involved in the company. This can make it difficult to navigate sexual harassment claims—especially when high potential talent or top executives are involved.

Regardless of personal stakes, it is my view that HR professionals must remain impartial and do the right thing to protect the company against inappropriate behavior, regardless of who is involved and what personal ramifications may result.

If an employee—at any level—has inappropriate behavior at work, those behaviors have the potential to negatively impact the business. It’s the obligation of the HR team to investigate and determine the next steps required to best protect all who are concerned.

How can you prepare?
One way for HR teams to remain impartial is to solicit support from outside legal counsel or to hire an HR consultant who can conduct sexual harassment investigations on behalf of the organization. Not only is it wise to have expert attention to these matters, it also relieves the in-house HR team of any misperceptions about how they handle the case.

Educate employees so they can confidently avoid harassment issues

With increased national awareness about the topic of workplace sexual harassment, you may find that your employees are nervous. The joke they told or the gesture they used never seemed to bother colleagues in the past…is that no longer true? Even if your organization hasn’t experienced sexual harassment claims, chances are your employees are a little on edge about the topic.

An article published by National Public Radio included salient tips from workers about how they ensure they avoid situations which could be considered harassment:

  • “My general rule is: If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman. Your best bet is to leave it alone and just say, ‘Good morning.’”
  • “Be respectful and gauge whether interest is reciprocal. Asking someone on a date may be OK, but do not persist, and stay within the bounds of office policy.”

There’s also great value in providing training for bystanders to empower them if they observe inappropriate behaviors or conversations. While trainers don’t advise reacting in the moment, they do advise checking in later with the target of harassment and talking to the person whose behavior was questionable.

“Bystander training is not about putting on your cape and saving the day,” one trainer told the New York Times.“ It’s about having a conversation with a friend about the way they talk about women.”

What advice would your employees give if they were asked about how to avoid harassment issues in the workplace? What action would they take if they were a bystander when harassment occurred? If you can’t answer that question, ask them to share their thoughts with you. Although it’s a difficult topic it’s one that is much better to discuss before an issue occurs rather than after.

How can you prepare?
Helping employees avoid harassment requires providing educational opportunities that resonate with them and also recognizing them for their positive workplace behaviors. Whether it’s through training, or informal manager conversations, in our experience organizations that set the tone from the top and openly talk about workplace issues are more successful in avoiding them or in addressing them immediately.

As we’ve seen in the recent news, sexual harassment is an issue that negatively impacts employees, it destroys careers, and it can put your organization’s credibility into question. By preparing a proactive approach, you can prevent issues before they arise and before the damage is done.