Millions of women (and some men) have posted #MeToo on social media, usually with an accompanying personal story of sexual harassment or assault. It seems daily, another public figure is being accused.
On Jan. 1, more than 300 women in the film industry created the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund to enable men and women access to the legal system to hold wrongdoers accountable.
Past reports show that one in three women ages 18—34 have been sexually harassed at work, and 71 percent said they did not report it. Nearly half of working women in the U.S. have said that they have experienced harassment in the workplace.
Many women have suffered in silence, but the tides are changing. Visits to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website have doubled since early October, and the National Women’s Law Center has had a fivefold increase in the number of calls received to disseminate information on the legal defense of harassment.
With awareness of the issue and support for victims increasing, more women are breaking their silence, and employers should expect to see a steep rise in sexual harassment claims reported this year.
The issues are serious, and employers must protect employees in their workplace from harassment and mitigate their potential liability. What follows are steps all employers should take:
1. Start at the top: Senior leadership must establish a culture in which harassment is not tolerated. This should be clearly and frequently stated, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Management should participate in training with the focus on preventing, identifying, stopping, reporting and correcting harassment.
2. Enforce strong, comprehensive harassment policies: Harassment policies should include a clear statement prohibiting harassment, as well as a definition of “sexual harassment” with examples. Strong policies include informal and formal complaint systems, an anti-retaliation provision, a confidentiality provision, assurance of prompt, impartial and thorough investigation, assurance of immediate corrective efforts and the duty of supervisors to report harassment.
3. Provide an effective complaint system: Employers should welcome questions and concerns and encourage early reporting. It must be communicated that leadership will operate promptly and impartially, impose appropriate consequences and fully resolve all issues – providing protection against retaliation and ensuring a fair process for the accused. These policies should be translated into other languages, if necessary, for employees to understand the policies, and made accessible to all employees.
4. Provide training for employees: Regular training tailored to the unique nature of the business is essential. Effective training must be provided to every employee in a clear and easy-to-understand format. Live training is recommended, as it is more engaging and allows for participants to ask questions to better understand what constitutes harassment and consequences for violators.
By taking proactive steps to prevent harassment from occurring and setting up a system to ensure swift investigations and justice in the workplace, employers can protect their employees and their businesses from the consequences of harassment and liability.