Harassment in the workplace has always been a concern for HR professionals, but as the #MeToo movement gained momentum over the past year it has been top-of-mind for all in the industry. HR professionals are striving to create safe workplaces, and now they’re getting assistance from state and local legislators. More than 30 state and local jurisdictions introduced more than 100 pieces of legislation in 2018 that target sexual harassment.

Identifying Harassment in the Workforce

To help your organization comply with the applicable sexual harassment requirements, it’s helpful to first understand what defines this behavior. Harassment is a serious matter that can affect not only the victim but also the workplace. Harassment can be overt or it can be subtle; it might not always be recognizable, and often people don’t know how to handle it when it occurs.

Each incident must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but sexual harassment can include unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances; sexually explicit statements; sexually oriented gestures, noises, remarks, jokes or comments; remarks the recipient feels are offensive or objectionable; sexual or discriminatory displays or publications anywhere in the workplace; and other harassing or hostile conduct that’s directed at recipients because of their sex. In today’s evolving workplace it’s also important to note that there is the potential for an employee to be sexually harassed by a supervisor, a subordinate, another employee, an intern, an independent contractor, a temporary or contract worker, a vendor, a visitor or even a customer.

Protecting Company Morale

Employment-related lawsuits can be very costly, but discrimination charges can cost a company more than money. For instance, loss of productivity and decreased employee morale can afflict the workforce, and consequently the bottom line. An organization may even experience a tarnished public image or reputation in the community or industry in the aftermath of a discrimination lawsuit.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Training

Comprehensive training on preventing sexual harassment is imperative in the workplace. In fact, several states have passed mandatory requirements for sexual harassment prevention training. For example, in New York, all employers with one or more employees must provide annual sexual harassment prevention training for every employee working in the state — including part-time, seasonal and temporary employees.

Here are some of the requirements of New York’s law:

  • Initial training must be completed by Oct. 9, 2019.
  • The training must be interactive and be provided in whatever language the employee speaks. Employers can no longer send employees to a corner to watch a video or read a packet.
  • The training must meet minimum standards, including an explanation of sexual harassment consistent with guidance issued by the U.S. Labor Department in consultation with the state’s Division of Human Rights, examples of conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the federal and state statutory provisions concerning sexual harassment and remedies available to victims of sexual harassment, and employees’ rights of redress and all available forums for adjudicating complaints.

    Encouraging a Harassment-Free Workplace Culture

    It’s crucial for employers to take a proactive approach to preventing harassment in the workplace. And as an HR professional, it’s your responsibility to adopt and implement policies and procedures to prevent and address all types of harassment based on all protected classes. In addition to resources available from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and model materials and other guidance that may be provided by state and local agencies to help employers meet the minimum standard requirements, businesses can turn to an HR outsourcing provider to help them comply with new or existing provisions. Even the most seasoned HR professional will likely have questions regarding the specific components of their state or local requirements.

    This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney in your state. The information in this article may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct or up-to-date.

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