Sexual Harassment Policy & Practice

November 13, 2007

The Ohio Employment Law Blog has a couple of posts that highlight court decisions involving the employers’ sexual harassment policies and practices. The posts put bring home the “real life” implications of an employer’s actions.

In EEOC v. V&J Foods, the court considered the language of an employer’s sexual harassment policy and found it to be “unreasonable” thereby invalidating the employer’s defense to a hostile environment sexual harassment claim. The case makes several good points about sexual harassment policies. The policy must be reasonable in light of the employment circumstances which means cookie cutter policies may not be enough. The policy must be tailored to the employer’s business. The court noted several problems:

  • A policy is not effective for those employees who do not speak English unless it is translated into a language that can be understood.
  • A policy must be tailored to the educational level of the average employee such as part timers, high school students, etc.
  • There must be more than one individual or class of individuals with whom a complaint may be filed so that a victim’s sole remedy doesn’t begin with the alleged harasser.
  • For a toll free hot line reporting mechanism to be effective, it should be answered by trained personnel who identify themselves as part of the human resource department.   

I have review hundreds of these policies in employee handbooks.  I almost always find some important deficiencies that need to be addressed.   Here are the typical problems I see:

  • Lack of dual avenues for filing complaints including one outside the chain of command.
  • Requirements that the complaint be in writing in order to be investigated.
  • Failure to advise complainants and witnesses that they will be protected from retaliation.
  • Assurance about confidentiality of the allegations, to the extent possible, while conducting an effective investigation.

The EEOC has scant guidance on the content of sexual harassment polices; however, there is one controversial position taken by the EEOC with regard to informing employees of their legal rights to file a complaint:

It also is important for an employer’s anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure to contain information about the time frames for filing charges of unlawful harassment with the EEOC or state fair employment practice agencies and to explain that the deadline runs from the last date of unlawful harassment, not from the date that the complaint to the employer is resolved.

In Engle v. Rapid City School District, the Court reviewed an employer’s response to a complaint of sexual harassment, specifically, the adequacy of the remedial action. This post lists factors to consider upon receipt of a complaint.

I have previously posted on sexual harassment issues as follows:

High Profile Sexual Harassment: Outsiders must Investigate

Sexual Harassment Complaints require Prompt and Carefully Planned HR Actions