Posted By:

Cheryl Miles on October 2, 2014

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and How to Prevent It

Sexual harassment is a problem that plagues many workplaces not just in America, but also around the world. It can range from being relatively innocuous where the perpetrator is unaware they’re doing anything wrong to being extremely predatory where the victim suffers long-standing trauma. It’s a broad term that can encompass a wide range of behaviors, and therefore, isn’t always easy to pinpoint. Here are some ways to effectively identify this behavior and preventative techniques your business can implement to promote a positive working environment.


Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

According to the United Nations, on the international level sexual harassment is defined as “including such unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable ground to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment.”

At it’s core, sexual harassment can be demeaning, humiliating, make the victim feel uncomfortable and often leads to a hostile atmosphere. In the past, it primarily pertained to unwelcome behavior from men to women. However, now the perpetrator and victim can be either male or female and can also be the same sex. When it comes to the role of the perpetrator, it can be a co-worker, manager, subordinate or anyone associated with the business. It can even be a client or customer who isn’t directly employed. The EEOC also adds “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.”


Consequences and Repercussions

In some cases, sexual harassment can be resolved when the employer takes remedial action and reprimands the perpetrator. This involves investigating the issue to figure out the details and then taking the necessary steps to discipline the guilty party. For instance, the individual might be suspended, lose benefits or be terminated.

However, if the employer doesn’t take remedial action or the victim isn’t satisfied with the outcome, it can lead to a lawsuit. Ever since the 1970’s, sexual harassment has been recognized as a form of sex discrimination. Victims of this behavior can sue their employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. At that point, the court will get involved, which could lead to a hefty settlement. According to Entrepreneur, “litigation in this area of the law can be extremely costly, even if you prevail. One attorney estimates the average legal fees for defense in a sexual harassment suit, regardless of the verdict, are upwards of $75,000.”


How Your HR Administration Can Help Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

To protect your employees and overall company culture, it’s best be proactive and take steps to prevent problems rather than waiting for them to arise. This typically starts with creating a set of policies for your workplace. Some things you may want to include are the definition of sexual harassment, examples and a complaint procedure.

You should also state that perpetrators are not allowed to retaliate and that all information will be kept confidential so that victims will be more comfortable coming forth. Having an established channel of complaints set up is important, and all of the information exchanged should be handled with the utmost confidentiality and professionalism. Also, setting up some type of training program to new hires is another good idea so they will have a full understanding of what types of behavior are unacceptable right off the bat.

Combating sexual harassment is something to take seriously because failing to do so can cost you financially and damage your business’s reputation. Fortunately, understanding the criteria that constitutes this behavior and taking action to prevent it should minimize your problems.