Sexual harassment isn't something that's easy for employees to discuss. Unfortunately, this means that there are many incidents that aren't ever reported. Sexual harassment isn't something that only happens within specific industries. It can happen anywhere. So it's extremely important that you know how to handle any sexual harassment issues before you're faced with the problem or a lawsuit.
Identify Potential Incidents
It's common for employees who are victims of sexual harassment to avoid the situation entirely. Typically, victims who don't report incidents of sexual harassment assume that reporting the incident will cause too many problems or that they'll get in trouble themselves. Because of this, victims sometimes use language that isn't as harsh as an accusation when discussing the offender. Employees who may be victims of sexual harassment may say things such as "I'm not comfortable working with him/her" or "he/she bothers me." If you notice one of your employees using phrases that could indicate he or she is being sexually harassed, pull the employee aside for a private conversation. During the conversation, it's important to reassure the employee that anything said during the conversation will be confidential. As you talk to the employee, gather as many details as you can so you can determine whether or not the employee has been sexually harassed.
If an employee indicates that he or she is being sexually harassed, encourage the employee to file a report against the offender so you have the documentation that you need to take action. Keep in mind, victims of sexual harassment may be worried about getting into trouble themselves, and they may not want the offender to get into trouble either — they just want the harassment to stop.
Take Complaints Seriously
You should never ignore a sexual harassment complaint from an employee, even if you believe that the employee who reported the incident may be overreacting. Ignoring complaints and not taking action could result in the victim suing your company. So make sure each incident is thoroughly investigated. If you own a small business and you don't have a separate human resources department, you should consult the guidelines created by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to learn how you can conduct an effective sexual harassment investigation. It's important to follow the guidelines exactly, because if the victim does decide to sue your company, there's a good chance that his or her attorney will consult the EEOC's guidelines to make sure your company's investigation was in compliance.
When an employee submits a sexual harassment claim, it's important to keep detailed documentation. You should include a detailed timeline of the incident(s), any facts that you've gathered from the employees involved and any witnesses, and direct quotes from your employees. All of your documentation needs to be clear and concise. Remember, the ultimate goal is to stop the harassment from occurring, but you also need to protect your company from potential lawsuits. So the more documentation you have, the better.
It's not easy for business owners to hear that sexual harassment is happening within their company. Unfortunately, it does happen, and you need to be prepared for any situations that arise. Knowing what to do when an employee has been sexually harassed and knowing how to spot potential harassment cases helps protect both your employees and your business. If you're unsure about how to proceed with a sexual harassment claim, you should consider contacting a sexual harassment attorney for advice.