Creating a Successful Sexual Harassment Policy for the Workplace

All organizations can find value in having an effective sexual harassment policy in place.

BLOG POST | Oct 12, 2018

In the 2018 ICMA Annual Conference session "Power Imbalances: Implementing Integrity in the Workplace," speaker Kevin Karpinski of Karpinski, Colaresi and Karp, pointed out the classic examples of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the end of the presentation, one of Karpinski's key takeaways was that all organizations need an effective sexual harassment policy in place. 

Most organizations have sexual harassment policies, include definitions of harassment that meet federal guidelines, and train most employees regarding the policy and harassment in general. Below these surface similarities, however, the fairly wide variation in policy and procedure suggests that policies are not all created equal, and such variation is ripe for imperfect and problematic implementation. What needs to be done? 

From the ICMA InFocus Report, Sexual Harassment: Successful Policy Implementation, here are a few sexual harassment policy and process recommendations to ensure consistency for all organizations: 

1. Train

Training is a critical component of successful sexual harassment policy implementation. Training makes employees aware of policies and increases policy use through reporting of sexual harassment. Training should also go a long way in addressing common sources of dissatisfaction with and fear of sexual harassment processes—that nothing will be done, that the victim will be blamed, that retaliation will occur, that confidentiality will be violated, that processes will not be fair, and that matters will not be handled in a sensitive manner. In short, widespread and consistent training, focusing on the central aspects of policy implementation, is absolutely required. It is a significant concern that fewer than one-half of responding communities train all employees and that only one-third train supervisors and managers.

Training is a critical component of successful sexual harassment policy implementation. Regular training should cover sensitivity issues, investigation processes, legal rights and protections, evidentiary standards, means of encouraging reports, and listening skills. For those local governments that train their employees, the training seems relatively complete. Most not only cover definitional issues but also provide supervisors with instruction on handling and processing complaints. More local governments, however, need to include specific training on interviewing witnesses and conducting investigations.

2. Evaluate

Because the role of supervisors in taking and acting on sexual harassment complaints is a pivotal one for the implementation process, particularly for women, who are most likely to be reporting, how well each supervisor fulfills this role should be an integral part of the supervisory evaluation process. It is rare, however, for an organization to formally evaluate supervisors on their handling of sexual harassment complaints although most local officials say they hold supervisors accountable for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and supervisors are required to report them. Thus most communities do not have a procedure that ensures quality control among supervisors.

3. Establish Channels for Reporting

Recommendations regarding reporting channels for sexual harassment suggest that organizations can affect both perceptions of confidentiality and the likelihood that harassment will be reported. In short, policies should limit the number of people involved in sexual harassment investigations, although never to just one person, and ensure that there are at least two access points for reporting. Obviously policies must also clearly identify reporting options and processes. The majority of policies contain explicit reporting instructions and tend to offer a choice of at least two people to report to: an employee in human resources or the immediate supervisor (or the supervisor’s supervisor if the supervisor is the accused). 

4. Form an Investigation Team

Who is responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints is also important; obviously different actors can have responsibility for taking reports and conducting investigations. Several recommendations have been made about investigations: that they be conducted by a team instead of an individual, that members of the team include individuals of both genders, and that many employees be trained to be part of a team in order to increase awareness of and confidence in the process. The number of persons involved in any particular investigation should be limited in order to increase confidentiality. Most policies are silent about the nature of the investigation and who will do the investigating.

5. Establish Deadlines

To prevent delays, sexual harassment policies should include timeframes for processes. Explicit timeframes enhance perceptions that policies and processes are as fair as possible and thus increase reporting. In some cases, guidelines require reporting within 10 days. Policies are more likely to set limits on the complainant than on organizational processes. This is a problem for several reasons. For policies to be perceived as fair and to function to limit future harassment, processes must occur in a timely and uniform manner.

Placing time limits on reporting harassment is also problematic. It is obvious that some statute of limitations is necessary; reports years after the fact do not make sense from a variety of perspectives. The idea that a victim will be ready to report harassment within 10 days, however, may be inherently unrealistic.

First, many employees do not initially perceive or acknowledge that they have been harassed. Research suggests that acknowledging harassment can be a long and uncertain process. Employees must then learn about complaint procedures and become confident enough to use them—a process that also takes time. In short, organizations that place quick timeframes on reporting may reduce reports but not harassment.

6. Maintain Confidentiality

It is a problem that half of the sexual harassment policies make no mention of confidentiality goals or protections and none includes any sanctions for breach of confidentiality. In previous surveys, fears about and knowledge of leaks and breaches of confidentiality were often mentioned as reasons for harassment not being reported and for dissatisfaction with the policy process. Fear of breaches of confidentiality is one reason to limit the number of individuals involved in the process. And it should also lead organizations to create, publicize, and invoke punishment for those breaching confidentiality protections and publicize the punishment imposed on those who have leaked. Absent any mention of confidentiality or any sanctions, nothing in the policy provides employees with a sense that confidentiality is either important or will be protected.

7. Provide Support

Although employees worry about confidentiality issues, retaliation issues, fear, embarrassment, and being blamed for reporting, the emotional stress the complaint process engenders could be reduced by offering employee assistance plan (EAP) services when they are available to employees. Supervisors should be trained in proper procedures for referring to EAP those individuals involved in complaints, without exposing the employer to liability concerns with respect to American with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims.

Both the complainant and the accused also might feel cornered and alone once a complaint has been filed and is being investigated. There are ways to overcome this, and one of the best is to provide ombudspersons for both the complainant and the accused. The term ombudsperson is used deliberately instead of advocate because an ombudsperson’s function is not to champion one of the parties or judge the complaint. Rather the role of the ombudsperson includes providing factual information on what the process and procedures involve, what the consequences are for violating the procedure, what avenues can be provided for stress reduction, and how to proceed with providing support witnesses within the limits of confidentiality. Ombudspersons should not have a reporting relationship to the human resources staff, and each ombudsperson should match the gender of the complainant and the accused.

8. Provide Feedback

Providing some sense of what happened and what was done increases policy satisfaction by creating a sense of closure—fostering perceptions that the policy is serving to reduce further harassment and that harassment is taken seriously by the organization. Organizations should distribute to all employees general data on complaints processed, training sessions and workshops held, results of continuing employee attitudinal and satisfaction surveys, general disciplinary outcomes, numbers of cases substantiated, and a clear summary of disciplinary options if charges are substantiated. Complainants should receive even more detailed information.

Want More?

You can access this presentation and 22 other 2018 ICMA Annual Conference sessions through the ICMA Virtual Annual Conference archives.


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