How to Handle Sexual Harassment in Your Small Business

How to handle sexual harassment in your small business

With sexual harassment in the spotlight, the hope is that employees and the companies they work for will be more sensitive to the problem and behave accordingly. The recent attention given to the subject makes it more clear than ever that serious efforts must be taken to curb harassment in the workplace.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), $46.3 million was paid out in settlements in 2017, and that doesn’t even take monetary settlements obtained through litigation. Clearly, beyond the toxic culture that sexual harassment creates, businesses stand to lose a lot of money.

Larger companies typically have safeguards in place, but dealing with sexual harassment in a small business can be difficult because of the intimacy of the workplace.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as discrimination  that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, right along with discrimination based on gender, pregnancy, age, color, race, religion, color, disability or genetic information.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) describes two types of sexual harassment are:

  • Quid pro quo – This is when someone submits to demands or refuses demands and then suffers the consequence of not getting the job, being fired, not being promoted or getting to work desirable shifts.
  • Hostile environment – When an employee is subject to what is reasonably considered a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment.

While sexual harassment is considered to be physical harassment or requests for sexual favors, it can also be more general. Sample behaviors provided by the DOL include:

  • Commenting on someone’s physical attributes
  • Telling off-color jokes
  • Displaying sexually suggestive pictures
  • Using crude language
  • Making obscene gestures

An EEOC study found that 4 out of 10 women reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances at work. But harassment can occur when the victim is the same gender as the harasser, the harasser can be a woman or a man, and men can be victims, too.

In 2016, of the roughly 13,000 sexual harassment complaints filed with EEOC, 16.6 percent of sexual harassment claims were filed by men. Agency estimates show that 75 percent of all incidents go unreported.

How to Deal With Sexual Harassment

Preventing sexual harassment in the first place is important. Recommendations from SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) include:

  1. Put a policy in writing – Communicate to your staff to make it clear that you won’t put up with sexual harassment. recommends make the policy part of an employee handbook that employees have to read and sign.
  2. Establish a process for handling harassment complaints – Employees should be told to take complaints to a specified person, not necessarily the supervisor, who might be the harasser in the first place. Have employees come to you or another manger that can be trusted to be impartial.
  3. Act quickly – As soon as there’s a complaint, act right away. Discuss the complaint with the person who reported the harassment, the person accused, and anyone else who can give you information, such as other employees.
  4. Be discreet – Even though you should talk to others who might provide insight, keep the complaint confidential as much as possible.
  5. Create a culture of open communication – Let employees know that if they are uncomfortable with someone’s behavior, they should first let that person know that the attention is unwanted and it should stop. This alone can stop the harassment and avoid a complaint. If it doesn’t, of course, employees should feel comfortable with taking it to the complaint level.
  6. Be proactive – If you see inappropriate behavior, such as displaying inappropriate photos) take the individual aside and resolve the problem before a complain has to be filed.

Legal Perspectives

Federal laws regarding harassment in the workplace apply to companies with 15 or more employees. State requirements vary, however, so be sure to check to see if your state has any applicable laws.

Be aware that a sexual harassment victim does not have to be the one to be harassed. EEOC states that the victim could e anyone that is affected by the offensive behavior. Also, harassment can be considered unlawful even if the victim was not damaged financially damaged or let go.

No matter how small your business is, it just makes sense to take steps and put processes in place to handle sexual harassment. Create a healthy work environment, for the sake of your employees and the health of the company.


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