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What is HR’s Role in Fighting Sexual Harassment?

October 13th, 2021
HR role

No one should feel afraid or uncomfortable going to work. Unfortunately, some people do, especially if they are the one out of four employees who studies say have experienced sexual harassment at work.

This statistic comes from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws against discrimination. These laws make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information.

Sexual harassment is forbidden under discrimination laws. Unfortunately, it persists in many workplaces, especially in the hospitality/restaurant and retail industries. As much as it occurs, studies confirm that sexual harassment may be underreported.

One study, conducted by software company Workhuman, found that only 47 percent of women and 66 percent of men being sexually harassed in the workplace reported it.

Even more startling is that 39 percent said they did not report the harassment because they do not trust their Human Resources (HR) department. They believed that HR would defend the company more than they would help the employee.

Clearly, HR departments across the United States need to build employee trust and lead the fight against sexual harassment. Experts say there are many actions HR can take.

How can HR Better Support Employees in Sexual Harassment Claims?

The following are strategies and tactics for HR departments to consider as they develop or amend policies regarding workplace sexual harassment.

Be more human instead of more lawyerly. Employers can face bad press, lawsuits, and many other consequences when an employee accuses another employee of sexual harassment. Sometimes the company is more worried about the legal implications of the harassment claim than the human consequences. 

Focusing on defending the company and not on helping the employee who suffered the harassment can be a problem in some companies. Although an employer has an obligation to both the company and the employee, employee morale suffers across the board when a sexual harassment complaint is not taken seriously. In addition, the harassed employee may suffer serious emotional and psychological harm. They may even be afraid to come to work or be in work situations conducive to harassment.

The HR department needs to focus on the employee first whenever a sexual harassment complaint is made. Doing so can enhance employees’ trust in the HR department and encourage a workplace where employees can do their best work without fear of harassment or reprisal.

Minimize the fear of retaliation. Studies show that another primary reason for not reporting harassment is that employees fear retaliation. They worry that their chances of promotion or other benefits will be lost if they complain about harassment. Some may be fearful of losing their jobs or of harm from the harasser. Others believe that they will be too uncomfortable working for the person if they report harassment.

Whatever the fear is, the HR department needs to communicate loudly and consistently that the company will not tolerate retaliation for reporting harassment. In addition to retaliation being illegal, it is demoralizing. It can also lead to egregious behavior on the part of the harasser. HR must not tolerate retaliation and should formalize and communicate their policies against it.

Provide meaningful and consistent training. Every person, from the mailroom to the C-suite, should undergo training that demonstrates what sexual harassment is and defines what will not be tolerated. This training can help ensure that every employee understands that sexual harassment will not be accepted and that there are consequences when it happens.

Training should also include a formal definition of sexual harassment to eliminate any confusion. This definition is frequently used and is clear and concise: Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently persistent or offensive to unreasonably interfere with an employee’s job performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Follow up on every complaint. Sometimes HR will not follow up on harassment complaints. This may happen when the subject of the complaint is a senior executive or another high-level employee. The HR person may be fearful of retaliation for approaching the employee. Whatever the reason, not following up on a sexual harassment complaint sends the message that this behavior is acceptable and without consequence.

Demonstrate meaningful consequences. When one employee harasses another and gets only a slap on the wrist, that signals that the company does not take harassment seriously. There should be meaningful consequences, such as immediate discharge, when an employee is guilty of sexual harassment.

Formalize a complaint system. Studies show that some employees do not know how to complain about sexual harassment. Their companies may not have formal channels for reporting the behavior. As a result, the employee may not know whether to go to the harasser’s supervisor, higher-level boss, or the HR department. Developing and communicating a transparent process for reporting harassment is essential in showing that the company will not tolerate sexual harassment.

Develop and communicate policies. Some employers, especially smaller companies, may not have procedures in place regarding sexual harassment. Companies of every size should develop and communicate policies to ensure everyone is aware of the company’s intolerance of sexual harassment.

What Should I Do if I am Sexually Harassed at Work?

If you are sexually harassed at work, there are several steps you should take, including the following:

  • File a formal complaint. It is hoped that your employer has a procedure for reporting sexual harassment. If so, follow the procedure and timelines, and be sure to get copies of the complaint. If no formal process exists, report the behavior to someone in authority and the HR department and make notes about it. The important thing is to ensure that management is aware of the sexual harassment.
  • Document everything. Keep thorough and detailed notes, records, copies, logs, and timelines of everything that transpires regarding both the harassment and the formal complaint. Digital evidence such as texts, emails, screenshots of messages, photos, and videos is also compelling, as are witness statements. Documentation helps refresh memories and may be needed in an eventual legal claim. Remember, you will need facts, not emotions, to prove sexual harassment.
  • Cooperate. Even if you believe that HR is not responding in the manner you would like, cooperate with their requests. However, be sure to document everything. If HR does not intend to follow up on your complaint or is not taking it seriously, there are additional steps you can take.
  • Hire a lawyer. If you have been harassed but are not being taken seriously, there are other avenues for resolution. If internal procedures do not work, you can contact the EEOC or your state’s civil rights enforcement agency to file a complaint. If you choose this route, it may be beneficial to have a lawyer guide you through the procedures and deadlines. They can be complex and exacting, so an experienced lawyer can lessen your stress and frustration throughout the process.
  • Find a new job. Sexual harassment and retaliation are not tolerable conditions in a workplace. If you have been harassed and nothing has been done about it, you can still file a lawsuit. But it may be a good idea to seek other employment as well. No one should be asked or expected to endure fear and humiliation at work.

Bucks County Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Advocate for Sexual Harassment Victims

No employee should ever have to put up with sexual harassment. If you or someone you care for is faced with this unwelcome situation, the skilled and compassionate Bucks County sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. are ready to help. Our legal team has a strong history of getting victims of sexual harassment the compensation they deserve. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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