Sexual harassment: How smart companies train people not to act stupid

Just this month, a Chicago restaurant agreed to fork over $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment charge filed by the EEOC. And a Nashville, TN, company was ordered to fork over $30,000 in compensatory damages as well as back pay to three teenaged female employees who were sexually harassed by their 38-year-old manager.

Seems remarkable, in this day and age, that sexual harassment would still be a crucial issue in the workplace. But according to the EEOC, it’s the third-most commonly filed complaint by employees.
Here’s a rundown of what smart companies are doing to discourage this particularly odious form of misconduct — and how they handle the complaints that inevitably come up.


Anti-sexual harassment training is an extension of the company’s formal written policy (usually contained in the employee handbook). The training allows employees – both supervisors and the rank-and-file – to put the concepts of the policy into actual human terms.
Most training programs hit these high points:

  • Identify and describe the wide-ranging forms of sexual harassment. This can be done in a number of ways, from role-playing to reading handout materials.
    Trainers stress that the examples given are only a small sample of the different forms harassment can take.
  • Explain how to spot sexual harassment. Many times, this is a real eye-opener for employees, especially older supervisors.
    Realizing that behaviors long regarded as innocent – such as making comments about female employees’ appearance – can qualify as harassment can make a real change in the tone of a workplace.
  • Outline how to respond to sexual harassment, even when no complaint has been filed. This is key to any training program – if managers can eliminate offensive behavior before it becomes a real issue, companies don’t have to worry about possible legal ramifications.
  • Define the stakes. Sexual harassment carries a huge cost – both in the corrosive effect it has on employees’ lives and the financial health of the organization.
    It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the workplace as professional and harassment-free as humanly possible.

Training program pitfalls

Valuable as training programs are, handled incorrectly, they can bring up some unintended consequences. Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t keep score. Many training sessions use quizzes or other tests to sharpen attendees’ focus on the material. Seems like a good idea, but …
    If an employee doesn’t pass the tests, and then is named in a harassment complaint, the company could be faulted for not taking remedial action when it was clear he or she didn’t understand the training material.
  • Forget the legalese. Some programs try to use legal cases – and the accompanying jargon – to help outline what is and isn’t sexual harassment.
    But most employees don’t have a clue what legal terms mean – and automatically tune out when they hear them.
    That could be a problem in court when a company offers its training program as evidence it made an effort to prevent workplace harassment.
  • Don’t try for humor. Although humor’s normally an effective way to get people to remember what they’ve learned, it’s simply not appropriate in anti-harassment programs.
    Harassment prevention training’s the wrong venue for the use of cartoon characters or jokes. It’s too easy to offend someone – the last thing a company would want when dealing with such an incendiary issue.

When the dreaded situation comes up

No amount of training is going to guarantee you’ll never run across a sexual harassment situation. So it pays to be prepared.
Clearly, timing is of the essence in dealing with harassment complaints. What’s more, the manner in which the company conducts the investigation is going be monitored very carefully by not just the people involved, but through the employee grapevine.
Handled correctly, a harassment investigation won’t just resolve a single issue: It’ll also discourage would-be harassers and let employees understand that it’s safe to report inappropriate behavior.
Here’s a rundown of the normal steps:

  • The manager who receives the complaint must immediately refer it to HR. Some harassment charges are filed with HR directly, but the lion’s share are heard by line managers first.
    Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to have managers try to conduct their own probe into a harassment charge.
    Most employers prefer that investigations of potential harassment are looked into by an outside party – at least one who’s outside the sphere of the employees in dispute. Often, this investigator’s specially trained to conduct investigations and is familiar with all aspects of the law.
  • Separate the accused harasser from the person making the complaint. Most experts agree that this action should be taken within 24 hours of the first report of harassment.
    This can be a tricky area. Firms have to be careful that employee transfers don’t appear as if the workers are being punished – either for making the complaint or being the alleged harasser.
    If, indeed, the charge proves to be true, the employer has greater freedom to transfer the offender under its established discipline policy. But until the investigation is complete, both the accuser and the accused have exactly the same rights as other company employees.
  • Start the investigation process. This, too, should happen within 24 hours of receiving the complaint.
    The actual investigation normally goes something like this:
    The investigator meets with the complaining party and gets a detailed account of the behavior in question. Then the alleged harasser is brought in to lay out his or her side of the story.
    It’s likely that other witnesses will also be asked to tell what they’ve seen and heard.
    Questioners follow several strict guidelines. They:
    • must be neutral and non-judgmental
    • should reassure the person there will be no retaliation for cooperating
    • should ask open-ended questions, and be careful not to suggest possible answers
    • can’t promise complete confidentiality – the case will be handled as privately as possible, but it’s impossible to guarantee that at least parts of the dispute won’t become known in the workplace, and
    • must document the situation as completely as possible — including the person’s appearance, mental state and the clarity of their recollections.
  • Evaluate the evidence and communicate the decision to the parties involved. Some cases are relatively easy to sort out. But many more come down to “he said-she said” with little solid evidence to tip the decision one way or another.
    So it’s entirely possible the company ends up taking no concrete action – except to keep a close eye on the situation in the future. Although that non-decision may not satisfy one of the workers involved, it’s a perfectly reasonable stance to take.
    Courts are most interested in the steps companies take to respond to harassment complaints. If management covers all the bases and then comes to a good-faith decision that a complaint isn’t valid, the decision is likely to hold up under legal scrutiny.
    The outcome of the investigation should be documented with a list of specific reasons for the decision. Only the people directly involved in the complaint – along with appropriate members of upper management – should receive the formal written decision.
  • Start disciplinary action. If there’s found to have been a violation of the company’s anti-harassment policy, the offender normally is disciplined according to the company’s progressive discipline policy.
    Some firms adopt a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual harassment, but that can prove to be overly restrictive, leaving management no middle ground when the situation’s not totally black and white.
    Whatever the policy, it should be made clear that the employee’s being punished for “inappropriate” – not “illegal” – behavior.
    Only the courts decide what’s legal and what’s not. Employers who tell workers they’re guilty of breaking the law could be unwittingly handing those employees grounds for a lawsuit.