Avoiding Sexual Harassment

The number of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased from 6,883 in 1991 to 15,889 in 1997. The United States Supreme Court last year weighed in on employers liability in two sexual harassment cases. In Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellereth, the Court held that employers can be held liable for a supervisor's sexual misconduct even if the company did not know of the improper behavior or if the employee did not suffer any negative consequences. However, the Court held that if a tangible job benefit was not denied to the employee, an employer could limit its liability if it has taken all reasonable steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. In light of these landmark cases, here are a couple of suggestions on how employers can protect themselves against sexual harassment claims:

  1. Implement a Written Sexual Harassment Policy: Employers must implement a written policy against sexual harassment. It should be written in plain English and distributed once a year. The policy should include a list of examples of what might be considered inappropriate conduct. The policy should also describe effective complaint procedures to be followed internally. Further, the policy should include a list of external resources to which an employee can turn if the employee believes he/she has been harassed.

  2. Implement a Written Internet/E-Mail Policy: The Internet and the increased used of e-mail has spawned a huge upturn in the incidents of sexual harassment. Pornographic photographs and inappropriate jokes can be down loaded from the Internet. Further, people seem to feel more comfortable putting things in e-mail messages that they would not verbalize or put in a written memo. A separate Internet and e-mail policy should prohibit their use other than for legitimate business purposes.

  3. Implement a Written Non-Fraternization Policy: The so called "No Dating Policy" is one more way to prevent sexual harassment. Allowing employees to have relationships with each other could expose the employer to liability if the relationship does not work out.