#Nextchat: Sexual Harassment: The Final Frontier of Workplace Gender Equality

The 800-pound gorilla in the office is (likely) wearing a suit and tie.

Equal pay is dominating the headlines of late, with both California and New York acting to close the stubborn 20 percent wage gap between men and women. While there has been real progress on equal pay at the state level, there’s another battle to be fought over gender equality that few states or regulatory agencies have addressed. Sexual harassment is a persistent nemesis for employers and—not surprisingly—it hurts women more than men by a long shot.

About 33 percent of all women experience some form of sexual harassment at work, compared to only 9 percent of men according to the Catalyst Knowledge Center. Overall, about 80 percent of sexual harassment victims at work are women according to the Association of Women for Action and Research. To make matters more alarming for HR professionals, about 70 percent of sexual harassment victims choose not to report it.  And that’s after Anita Hill kicked the door down.

Sexual harassment is not easily identifiable by a pay stub comparison or examination of job descriptions. It’s something that often lurks under the surface or exists only in private conversations or interactions. You may catch it with surveillance or Internet usage monitoring if you’re lucky, but in any case, it’s a true headache for employers and a major drain on profitability for businesses.

Thankfully, the hands of HR professionals are not completely tied. They have a weapon to use in this battle: the internal investigation.

There are times when companies are legally required to conduct sexual harassment investigations, making this an obligation more than a tool. But in many cases, investigations occur too late in the life of a harassment cycle, rendering the investigation wasteful and ineffective. Then you have to call the lawyers in and that usually means calling the CFO, too.

The solution to this persistent and costly problem is twofold: prevention training and early intervention in the form of an investigation. Every business owner should consider training as both education and a form of insurance against future sexual harassment claims.

As for investigations, HR professionals have tremendous discretion and flexibility in their decision-making. They are the eyes and ears of a company. They are the first line of defense. They are not obligated to wait for formal reports of sexual harassment to investigate, nor are they obligated to be 100 percent correct in their assessment of a situation. They are obligated to act in good faith and to be thorough when investigating.

How do you currently address internal investigations and terminations for sexual harassment in your workplace, and what are the best practices and protocol for both?

Please join @shrmnextchat at 3 p.m. ET on November 11 for #Nextchat with special guest XpertHR employment attorney Michael Jacobson (@HRTerminator). We’ll discuss the many aspects of handling sexual harassment in the workplace, from training and investigations to discipline and termination.

Q. What are the signs that an employee is being sexually harassed but may be afraid to report it?

Q. What are the do’s and don’ts for conducting an internal investigation for a sexual harassment complaint?

Q. What types of information should be documented when attempting to terminate an employee for sexual harassment?

Q. What steps can and should HR take to discipline an employee for sexual harassment before considering termination?

Q. What rights does an employee have when an employer investigates or terminates for a sexual harassment complaint?

Q. How can HR protect the complainant during an internal investigation for sexual harassment?

Q. When can an employee be terminated for sexual harassment? 

Q. What is the proper protocol for terminating an employee for sexual harassment?  

Q. What are some best practices for implementing a sexual harassment training program? 


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