As we discussed in our last alert, addressing sexual harassment in the healthcare workspace is no longer optional or something that any business can afford to pay lip service to without serious financial and reputational risk. Payouts and settlements in sexual harassment lawsuits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in today’s highly charged atmosphere, ruin both reputations and careers. Recent statistics provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) show that in the last seven years alone, U.S. companies have paid out more than $295 million in public penalties for sexual harassment claims. Note that this figure DO NOT include private settlements, which are normally protected by nondisclosure agreements.

The first line of defense, and one of the best ways to prevent sexual (and indeed any type) of harassment in the workplace is to have a clearly communicated anti-harassment policy. If you already have a policy in place, review it with legal counsel. If you don’t have a policy in place, you should. Key components of a workplace harassment policy include:

Harassment Defined. Employees need to know they types of behaviors that are prohibited. As an employer, you will need to know what state and federal laws apply to your business. Your policy will need to take into account those applicable laws, and then communicate clearly the types of conduct that are impermissible and provide examples.

Scope and Application. The policy needs to address behaviors by and toward clients, customers, and coworkers. Make it clear that the policy applies to everyone, regardless of position or level of authority.

Reporting. A robust harassment policy includes a clear and well-communicated reporting procedure. Victims need to know how to report incidents of harassment, whether to a human resources manager, supervisor, or a hotline.

Investigation. The policy should also set forth a process for investigation that includes assurances of promptness, thoroughness and impartiality. Ensure adequate documentation of the process from initial report, through investigation, and to the conclusion of the process – whatever the ultimate outcome. Assure victims and witnesses that they are protected against retaliation.  

Communication. The policy and reporting procedures must be communicated to all employees, generally during onboarding and then ideally at regular intervals thereafter to the entirety of the workforce. The policy should be posted in public areas of the worksite, on company intranet sites, and in policy manuals.

A clearly stated and communicated anti-harassment policy can go a long way toward preventing harassment in the workplace by putting the entirety of the workforce on notice that the matter is taken seriously and that the defined behaviors will not be tolerated.