How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Read how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, and what you can do to overcome the situation if it arises in your organization.

In 1991, Sexual Harassment in the workplace was front and center when the Anita Hill and Paula Jones stories caused a media firestorm. Hill’s allegations towards Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Jones’s charges against President Bill Clinton (case number 520 U.S. 681, 117 S. Ct. 1636, 37 L. Ed. 2d 945, 1997 U.S.) put sexual harassment in the cross hairs of most every forward-thinking workplace in America. Company leaders rushed to educate, to provide HR training, to roll out policies to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace – all in an effort to stay clear of any allegations that could be detrimental to the company. (Visit for more information on HR training.)

Given this backdrop, one might think that high-profile sexual harassment cases were a thing of the past. One would be wrong. In April, a physician’s assistant was awarded $168 million in a sexual harassment suit filed in California against Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento (California case number 2:09-cv-02972-KJM-KJN). In June, two male members of the Los Angeles Unified School District became involved in a law suit that may turn into an expensive legal battle. Last fall, a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Herman Cain, had his campaign destroyed after a series of sexual harassment allegations made by previous employees became public knowledge.

Why is this still happening? Are companies shying away from spending the money for HR Training? Do people think that is can’t happen to them? Does a lack of onsite HR consulting cause the problem? Is it more about individuals behaving badly and less about a culture of harassment? At HR for Business, we think it is a combination of all of this – but not all factors will be in place. At a hospital, you can be certain that there is an HR presence, and it is likely that the entire staff has received proper HR training. In other cases, perhaps training did not occur or perhaps it was primarily about an individual. But you do not typically see 9-figure awards if it is a case of one rogue employee behaving badly. Huge awards typically address a culture that dismisses, allows, or even encourages harassment. One of the most famous cases of sexual harassment in the workplace is Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (case number 523 US 75 - Supreme Court 1998). The allegations in this case were incredibly disturbing, involving both co-workers and supervisors of the victim. The end result was a huge settlement awarded to Mr. Oncale. In this case, as in other cases where massive awards were given, the key seems to be the culture of the environment. If an outside observer might come to the conclusion that your culture is one where sexual harassment is the norm, you are in deep, deep trouble. If you have to ask yourself if this might be the case, you have some serious concerns that need to be swiftly addressed.

Regardless of whether you think you have an environment where sexual harassment is possible, at HR for Business we recommend the following:

  •     Have a strong written policy against sexual harassment in the workplace.
  •     Educate all of your employees on your company’s policy.
  •     Provide HR Training on Sexual Harassment Prevention. If you do not have on-site HR Consulting, bring in an external resource.
  •     Know your company, know your people. Don’t just assume everything is fine. Walk the floor, visit satellite locations. A company will be found liable for harassment if leaders knew or should have known that harassment was occurring.
  •     Take any complaint seriously, and address it properly. If you do not have your own HR person or department, work with an external HR consultant. Visit for more information on HR consulting from HR for Business.

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Robert McKenzie
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