As an employer, it is your responsibility to maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment, says Vera Bitsch, Michigan State University ag economist. And you and your managers must discourage this inappropriate behavior convincingly, she asserts.

Because if you don’t, the financial penalties can be enormous. Take for example a jury in California earlier this year awarded a farm employee nearly a $1million in a sexual harassment suit. For details of the judgment, go to: www.eeoc.gov/press/1-21-05.html

Broadly defined, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is not limited to women; men can be sexually harassed, too. However, generally accepted behavior, like an occasional compliment, is not harassment, explains Bitsch.

“To determine what is considered sexual and unwelcome behavior, the law takes the perspective of a ‘reasonable person’”, she adds. “Therefore, there is a considerable gray area.” In a case where a woman is the victim of harassment, a “reasonable person” would be another woman.

Any employee feeling harassed needs to make his or her objections known to the offending party. Still, the main responsibility rests with the employer and managers to prevent harassment. And if it still occurs, then they are the ones who must put a stop to it.

Key areas to monitor include:

  • Times when hiring, training, evaluation, promotion, pay increases, discipline or termination occur. Sexual harassment occurs when submission is explicitly or implicitly made a term or condition of employment. And when submission or rejection affects employment-related decisions.
  • Quid pro quo, or tit-for-tat, situations. The purpose or effect of these unwelcome actions substantially interferes with work performance. Or creates a hostile work environment. It can be created by supervisors, co-workers or even non-employees — like customers or vendors.

To protect employees, make sure any pressure for sex, touching, groping, suggestive behavior — including provocative clothing, sexual humor and sexually explicit photographs or computer graphics — are strongly discouraged, recommends Bitsch.

If a manager or supervisor witnesses offending behavior, they must discourage it immediately. Regularly train supervisors on how to identify sexual harassment and how to prevent it. And make it clear that they are expected to follow exemplary behavior to set the proper tone for your dairy.

Also create a clearly stated policy against sexual harassment. Make sure it says that sexually offensive behavior at the workplace will not be tolerated, that it reduces productivity and diminishes morale, she says. Inform employees that offensive behavior may result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

Develop a complaint procedure, one where the direct supervisor is not the person receiving the complaint as they may be the offending party. Make employees aware of this procedure, including to whom they should turn if harassment happens. They should know that they can contact upper-level managers at any time if problems occur.

Take every complaint seriously and investigate it confidentially, suggests Bitsch. “If an investigation shows evidence of wrong-doing, managers need to follow through with disciplinary action and not turn a blind eye.”

In addition, encourage employees to clearly articulate any objections to sexually charged behavior. “If talking does not help, it sometimes clarifies the situation to put concerns in writing,” says Bitsch.

Finally, encourage open communication throughout your team. “An open communication channel will often prevent law suits,” concludes Bitsch.

For more information about dealing with sexual harassment, go to: http://eeoc.gov/types/sexual_harassment.html

Michigan StateUniversity