The most effective weapon against sexual harassment is prevention. Harassment does not disappear on its own. In fact, it is more likely that when the problem is not addressed, the harassment will worsen and become more difficult to remedy as time goes on.
The burden of preventing sexual harassment rests on the employer. In the United States, Canada and in some European Union Member States, employers are responsible for providing their employees with a work environment that does not discriminate and is free of harassment. Employers are, therefore, required by law to take steps to prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace. If the employer has not taken all reasonable steps to prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace, the employer may be liable for any harassment which does occur, even if unaware that the harassment was taking place. The United States, in particular, has a well- articulated standard of employer liability for sexual harassment committed by an employee.
Most successful preventive strategies and plans on sexual harassment require the involvement of all those concerned and a clear statement of intent. The statement of intent should reflect a real commitment from all parties concerned to recognize the importance of the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. This is usually accompanied by the establishment of a written policy.
Anti-harassment policies explain what harassment is, tell all employees that harassment will not be tolerated, and set out how employers and employees should respond to incidents of harassment. Anti-harassment polices should also set forth a detailed mechanism by which employees can make complaints when sexual harassment occurs.
Having an anti-harassment policy does not mean that there will be no harassment complaints. However, having an effective policy and procedures, coupled with anti-harassment training for all staff, will assist in preventing harassment and support individuals who are being harassed to come forward and ensure that the problem is addressed quickly and effectively. In the United States, courts have held that an employer who responds quickly and effectively to a complaint by taking steps to remedy the situation and prevent future harassment will not be liable to the same extent, if at all, as an employer who fails to adopt such steps.
Below are some measures that employers can take in order to create a harassment-free workplace, based on guidelines from the British Columbia Human Rights Commission manual Preventing Harassment in the Workplace.
- · Make it clear that this is a workplace where harassment will not be tolerated.
- · Provide education and information about harassment to all staff on a regular basis. The circulation of information, open communication and guidance is of particular importance in removing the taboo of silence which often surrounds cases of sexual harassment. Information sessions, personnel meetings, office meetings, group discussion and problem-solving groups can prove very effective in this respect. Staff should also be informed of the best way of coping with aggression by means of guidelines and staff development programs on sexual harassment at work.
- · Develop an anti-harassment policy together with employees, managers, and union representatives.
- · Communicate the policy to all employees
- · Make sure that all managers and supervisors understand their responsibility to provide a harassment-free work environment.
- · Ensure that all employees understand the policy and procedures for dealing with harassment – new and long-term employees alike – this involves training, information and education.
- · Show you mean it – make sure the policy applies to everyone, including managers and supervisors.
- · Promptly investigate and deal with all complaints of harassment.
- · Appropriately discipline employees who harass other employees.
- · Provide protection and support for the employees who feel they are being harassed.
- · Take action to eliminate discriminatory jokes, posters, graffiti, e-mails and photos at the work site.
- · Monitor and revise the policy and education/information programs on a regular basis to ensure that it is still effective for your workplace.
Employers should provide a mechanism for addressing sexual harassment in a confidential and sensitive manner after a grievance has been filed. A well constructed and well-implemented plan within an organization may stop inappropriate conduct before it creates a problem for individual employees or the company.
Many model anti-harassment policies, from the United States and Canada, can be used as sample frameworks for creating systems to prevent workplace harassment in other countries.
In addition to the employer’s responsibility to provide a non-discriminatory and non-violent workplace atmosphere, employees must also assume an active role in the prevention of sexual harassment. Employees should commit to do the following:
- · obtain and become familiar with the organization’s policy on sexual harassment;
- · examine one’s feelings, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to sexual harassment;
- · see that behavior corresponds with the expectations and behavioral requirements of the organization’s sexual harassment policy.
- · be aware and conscious of engaging in potential sexual-harassment behaviors or incidents at work;
- · be sensitive to individuals who may be offended by the verbal and non-verbal behavior of others;
- · be aware of subtle forms of sexual harassment;
- · watch for and discourage sexual behaviors that negatively affect work.
- · pay attention to the response of others in order to avoid unintentional offense;
- · do not assume that employees or co-workers enjoy or want to hear risqué jokes or sexually oriented comments about their appearance, or be touched, stared at, flirted with, or propositioned for dates or sexual favors;
- · ask yourself if your verbal or non-verbal behaviors might have a negative impact on other co-workers’ attitudes toward work;
- · examine your behaviors, gestures, and comments. Ask yourself, “Could I unknowingly be encouraging sexual interplay by the way I interact or communicate?”
- · do not take sexual harassment lightly. If you think you are being sexually harassed by an individual or a group, do not accept it as a joke. Do not encourage the harasser by smiling, laughing at his/her jokes, or flirting back. Let the harasser know that you do not enjoy and do not want this type of attention.
- · if possible, confront the sexual harasser immediately. Tell him/her that you find that type of attention offensive;
- · if possible, tell the harasser that the behavior affects you negatively and has the potential of negatively affecting you job;
- · if possible, tell the harasser what behaviors (gestures, physical or verbal) behaviors you find offensive.
- · seek confidential advice to develop your personal resolution strategy;
- · consider writing a letter to the harasser and keep a copy for yourself;
- · document all the incidents of sexual harassment. Be detailed, precise about date, time, location, and person/persons involved.
- · if you know someone who is being harassed, give him or her your support. Encourage the recipient to talk about it and to take immediate action to stop it;
- · if you actually see or hear an incident of sexual harassment or are subjected to an offensive environment, you can also take the appropriate steps to resolve the harassment or co-file with the complainant;
- · when a recipient files a complaint, if possible, support him or her throughout the complaint process.