Business owners today wear many hats and juggle many metaphorical balls. Keeping a business alive and prosperous takes a great deal of time, energy, patience, and passion. And in the modern era, entrepreneurs must deal with issues extending far beyond marketing, taxes, and profit ratios. Seemingly peripheral issues like protecting your employees from sexual abuse have become as important as hiring the right tax accountant—both are critical in keeping your business healthy and productive. The law is clear: sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result, courts can hold employers liable when employees feel sexually harassed at their workplace. This is especially true if a supervisor perpetrates the harassment or allows an environment of sexual workplace harassment to exist.
Claims for sexual abuse can be costly for business owners. Financially, a court can order a business to compensate victims for lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. They can even impose punitive damages. Emotionally, sexual abuse and harassment claims can demoralize an entire workforce and bring productivity to a standstill. So how can a business owner protect their employees and their business from potentially costly and demoralizing sexual abuse claims? The following steps will help you create a more professional working environment for your employees while limiting your liability if an employee files a sexual abuse claim.
Step 1: Create a Sexual Abuse Policy
A crucial first step for any business owner is establishing a sexual abuse policy for your company. When developing this policy, it is wise to consult an experienced employment law attorney. It is their job to know the intricacies of the law, and they can help make sure that you have covered all the essential elements of sexual abuse and harassment law in your policy statement.
After your plan is complete, you must codify the policy in an employee manual or handbook. Each employee must receive a copy. Employers should have employees provide their signature to confirm that they received and read a copy of this handbook. The document should:
- Precisely define what sexual abuse is and give examples;
- Clearly state a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse;
- Outline the steps to take if an employee feels sexually harassed;
- Outline the steps the company will take to investigate each claim; and
- Define the penalties for those found guilty of harassment.
By creating written documentation of your sexual harassment policy, you empower your employees to speak up for themselves if they feel objectified at work. Additionally, a written policy is proof that you took the appropriate steps to curtail sexual abuse at your place of business.
Sexual Abuse Training
Some states require businesses to provide sexual abuse and harassment training. Delaware is one such state. However, Maryland does not impose this requirement. But regardless of state law, it is essential to conduct yearly sexual abuse and harassment training to keep your employees educated and limit your liability. Supervisors need annual training as well. Yearly management training accomplishes the goals of:
- Keeping the issue front and center in everyone’s minds;
- Teaching managers to spot potential harassment before it is even reported; and
- Giving management the chance to stop harassment in its tracks before it causes too much damage.
Keeping supervisors up to date on identifying sexual abuse and harassment and dealing with it swiftly and expeditiously can help maintain a healthy work environment for everyone.
Consensual Agreement Contract
These forms are a good idea when it comes to inter-office dating. When each party signs a form, they are stating that:
- They are in a relationship with another employee;
- The other employee is not working in a supervisory capacity;
- The relationship is consensual;
- They received a copy of the company’s policy on sexual abuse; and
- If the relationship should end, there will be no work-related retaliation.
It is a good idea to get an experienced employment attorney involved in creating these contracts to ensure the wording doesn’t leave the company liable.
Step 2: Maintain a Sexual-Abuse-Free Work Environment
Once you have established a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse through a written statement, training, and consensual agreement contracts, you should now maintain the standard through everyday work experiences.
Do Not Allow Anything Inappropriate in the Workplace
Keep a watchful eye out for anything that may be visually inappropriate around the office. Pictures, screensavers, and other visual items may be sexually offensive to some employees. If they are found, they should be removed. Discourage inappropriate jokes or discussions where someone may be offended whenever you overhear them and encourage others to do the same. And make it abundantly clear that your door is open if anyone in your workplace has any concerns regarding inappropriate behavior they have witnessed.
Office parties can be a great way to strengthen relationships and build morale within the work environment. However, these parties are still associated with your business enterprise and must be comfortable for everyone in attendance. Therefore, it’s a good idea to review sexual abuse policies and dress codes with employees before any office event.
Step 3: Respond to Sexual Abuse Appropriately
If an employee files a sexual abuse and harassment complaint with your company, be sure to address the complaint immediately. Follow the company’s established policy for dealing with the complaint, and work with the parties involved to create a resolution. Remember, not all sexual abuse complaints are valid. There are two sides to every story. However, you need to do your best to make sure that all parties are satisfied, or you may find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit.
If the complaint is valid and you have to resort to disciplinary action, take steps to ensure no resulting retaliation against the employee who filed the grievance. Retaliation is not only against company policy—it is against the law! So be sure to nip retaliatory behavior in the bud whenever you see it. Swift action helps foster an environment where employees feel safe to bring their grievances to management.
We Are Here for You
The Smithey Law Group has experienced employment law attorneys who are ready to help you. We know that sexual abuse and harassment claims are something that every employer yearns to avoid. But sexual abuse law can be difficult for non-lawyers to decipher in a meaningful way. The bottom line is, you need to protect your business, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We can help you put together a comprehensive sexual abuse policy that protects your business and your employees. So take the first step in creating a workplace that everyone enjoys going to every day. Call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today.