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A "Practical Management" Article

Sexual Harassment: Awareness & Prevention

Sexual harassment goes beyond threatening an employee with job loss or a denial of a promotion if he/she will not agree to join the boss after work for drinks. Due in large part to recent 1998 and 1999 legal precedents, the issue of sexual harassment, and on a larger scale, discrimination, has become an issue about which all employees, supervisors, and employers need to be aware. Additionally, this is of particular importance to supervisors, as they are held to a higher degree of accountability for conduct in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." The above behaviors are only considered sexual harassment when one of the following criteria are met:

  • Submission to such conduct is made either implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of employment;

  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions;

  • Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Quid pro quo and Hostile Work Environment

Two types of sexual harassment are currently recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing sexual harassment guidelines under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: "quid pro quo" (this for that) and "hostile work environment".

Quid pro quo involves allegations that submission to unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors were made a condition of getting, keeping, or advancing in a job. It is generally viewed as a blatant form of sexual harassment because it involves a “tangible employment action” and results in an actual economic loss. This type of harassment is attributable only to employees in a supervisory position because they have the power to promote, discipline, and/or terminate.

Hostile work environment involves allegations that the organization created or condoned an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment and does not typically involve an economic loss.

Being Aware

Supervisors need to be aware of the potential for sexual harassment/discrimination in the workplace. Sexual harassment claims are now the most common form of employment litigation. Many supervisors think, “That could never happen to me.” If sexual harassment was limited only to explicit and overt inappropriate actions and comments, that may be true. Often the harassment is implicit and the supervisor is unaware that his/her behavior is inappropriate and unwelcome. For example, a supervisor asked a subordinate employee for a date and is turned down. The following weeks, the supervisor makes an appointment with the same employee to have his/her performance review. While making the appointment, the supervisor again asks the employee for a date. The employee may perceive that a positive performance review is contingent upon accepting the supervisor’s offer. This could be considered sexual harassment, even if the supervisor did not intend to convey that message.

Preventative Measures

In general, there are certain steps that can be taken by supervisors to avoid issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. First, supervisors must begin by setting an example and avoiding all inappropriate behavior of their own. A supervisor has a certain amount of institutional authority due to his/her position and needs to be cognizant of any perceived unintentional messages. Inappropriate behavior can be defined as “most sexually oriented comments, conduct, and behavior” (i.e., derogatory comments or slurs based on sex; impeding or blocking movement of an individual based on sex; offensive posters, drawings, computer wallpapers, pictures, and e-mails based on sex).

Secondly, supervisors must be committed to responding to all sexual harassment complaints. Often, investigating the complaint is beyond the scope of the supervisor’s position and, depending on the situation, supervisory involvement could be inappropriate. Supervisors may also not guarantee complete confidentiality for the employee. While efforts will be made to maintain confidentiality, it may be necessary to disclose specific information in the course of the investigation.

Finally, supervisors need to be aware of the potential for the sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not enough to wait for a complaint before taking action. If the supervisors are aware of the harassment occurring in the workplace, yet take no action; they are condoning the behavior and subjecting themselves to potential claims.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

What does that mean for the employer and supervisor? Below are a few suggestions of proactive things you can do in the workplace to decrease the likelihood of sexual harassment claims affecting you.

  • Acknowledge sexual harassment as a form of DISCRIMINATION and a CRIME

  • Have a "ZERO TOLERANCE" policy in place at your agency

  • Have clearly written procedures for filing a sexual harassment claim, including the names of persons to whom such a complaint should be made

  • The policy MUST provide for more than one person with whom an employee may file a complaint. Specifically, an employee MUST be able to direct a complaint to someone other than his or her supervisor

  • Continually update the policy and educate all employees about the policy through agency wide trainings, postings and distribution of policies, articles and staff memos

  • Respond to ALL allegations of sexual harassment IMMEDIATELY
  • Reassure all complainants that retaliation of any kind will not be tolerated

  • Contact your EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM and encourage those involved to utilize the EAP for support

Written by Christina Dennis, MSW
Edited by:
Barry Shackelford, LPC, CEAP
Angela Pittman, LICSW, CEAP
Mary S. McLain

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This information is not intended to be considered legal advice, nor the substitue for legal advice. If you have legal questions, it is recommended that an attorney be consulted.

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