A sexual harassment policy defines sexual harassment, prohibits that kind of conduct in your workplace, and describes the discipline that offenders will receive if they violate the policy. It is necessary for small businesses to have sexual harassment policies to ensure compliance with federal and state laws, as well as to create a safe work environment for employees.
Here’s a free sexual harassment policy template you can download and modify to fit your needs. Please make sure you have your employment lawyer or HR expert review the policy before you roll it out to your team.
Why Small Businesses Need a Sexual Harassment Policy
An effective sexual harassment policy ensures your employees understand what conduct is and is not appropriate in your company. It also ensures equitable and consistent treatment of every employee. A good policy will also help keep your company out of costly litigation.
As an employer, you are required to adhere to certain federal laws, including the anti-discrimination laws under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Once your business has 15 or more employees, you are subject to EEOC laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex. Violations can result in costly fines and employee lawsuits. Having a clear policy can reduce these risks.
Your employees may become disengaged and demoralized if they see employees engaging in sexual harassment or being harassed by others without any repercussions. A clear policy can deter this type of behavior. There are two types of sexual harassment common to the workplace: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo means “this for that.” This is usually encountered when a supervisor requests sexual favors from a subordinate employee and promises something in return, like a promotion or raise. This behavior is clearly inappropriate.
A hostile work environment occurs when sexual harassment is so frequent or intense that it changes the workplace for the person being harassed. It can happen from sexual jokes, sexual compliments, pornographic images, and physical touching. These actions make it difficult for someone to do their job and they tend to be stressed and overwhelmed by the actions of the harasser, creating a hostile work environment.
What to Include in Your Sexual Harassment Policy
Sexual harassment is a tough subject, but one you must address. The presence of a policy can discourage people from engaging in such inappropriate behavior, thereby ensuring a safe and engaging working environment for all employees. Including the following sections in your sexual harassment policy will ensure compliance and a clear statement that your company will not tolerate this behavior.
Define Sexual Harassment & Who’s Subject to the Policy
When defining sexual harassment, you do not need to include the exact terms “quid pro quo” or “hostile work environment,” though you certainly may. Most important is that you broadly define sexual harassment and provide examples of prohibited behavior. Note that your examples of sexual harassment are not all-inclusive and are provided only for illustration.
Your policy should also contain a statement about which employees are subject to the policy. That should include every employee of your company. This is a policy where no one should be exempt.
Your sexual harassment policy should include the process and general timeline for the investigation. It all begins with a formal complaint made either by the employee being harassed or by an HR representative on behalf of the employee.
The complaint should include as much detail as possible about the incident or ongoing incidents of sexual harassment, including the names and job titles of everyone involved. This gives the HR team enough information to begin interviews of the accused harasser and any witnesses.
The process of the investigation may meander as more evidence is uncovered. It’s a good idea not to lay out every single step of the investigation but rather to broadly explain how HR will handle the investigation. This may include interviews and evidence gathering, which will ultimately lead to HR making a decision.
Be sure to include estimated timelines. Once your HR team has received the complaint, it should begin the investigation in a timely manner, usually within one business day. This might seem too fast but your company—and in some states your HR employees—could be held liable for delays in investigating a legitimate sexual harassment complaint. The faster an investigation begins, the more likely you are to uncover accurate and honest information about what occurred.
Also set a timeline for the completion of the investigation. Absent other circumstances which may delay the completion, we recommend one to two months.
Especially for the accuser, confidentiality can be a big concern. Your policy should include a statement about confidentiality, noting that your HR team will keep information confidential to the extent possible. This means that the accuser’s name may need to be revealed during discussions with the accused and any witnesses in order to obtain accurate information.
Evidence gathered and records of discussions had with the parties involved will also be kept confidential. Your company should retain this information in double-locked confidential HR files with access limited to HR personnel.
Also make clear in your policy that you will not tolerate any retaliation based on an employee filing a complaint. This type of behavior should be subject to disciplinary action under the policy.
The final core piece of your sexual harassment policy addresses what happens to an employee found to violate the policy. We recommend having a minimum disciplinary action of a written warning. Most progressive discipline policies begin with a verbal warning, but violations of a sexual harassment policy are worthy of a harsher penalty. A written warning will become part of the employee’s personnel file and will show the significance of their actions.
Your policy should also include language that you can choose to provide a stiffer sentence, if the investigation warrants it, like termination. Even for first offenses, the conduct may be so egregious that you no longer want that employee in your business. In some cases, termination may be the best resolution for everyone involved.
According to the EEOC, sexual harassment claims were down in 2020, though that could be a result of more people working remotely because of the pandemic. For the previous several years, workplace sexual harassment claims have been steadily increasing.
Federal law prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace for employers with at least 15 employees. Some states go beyond the federal standards for what constitutes sexual harassment. Here is a breakdown to help you ensure your policy is compliant with your state law. Note that some states have sexual harassment prohibition laws which simply mirror the federal law. Because those states do not go beyond the federal requirements, we did not list specific information about the law.
Just like any other company, small businesses face issues of sexual harassment. The creation of a strong sexual harassment policy will make it clear to all employees that you will not tolerate this type of behavior. Using our free template gives you a good starting point to help you prevent sexual harassment while protecting your employees and your company.