Sexual Harassment: Impact > Intent

“I didn’t mean it that way.” – We hear that phrase many times, especially in the digital age when tone and inflection are rarely well-translated over email, text message, or Facebook. But, when dealing with workplace harassment, supervisors must regard that elusive phrase as a red flag. If you don’t, you could be subject to legal repercussions. As a supervisor, here is what you need to know to deal with sexual harassment:

  • Intent vs. Impact: Most importantly, whether or not the behavior is “unwelcoming” is decided by the recipient of the behavior, NOT the initiator. Supervisors must value impact over intent when deciding how to address the situation.
  • Understand what constitutes sexual harassment: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal/physical conduct of sexual nature. Remember, these laws apply to both employees and employers who have 15 or more employees.
  • Monitor your workforce for signs of sexual harassment:Pay attention. Do you see any interactions where there is not equal initiation and participation? Do you hear sexual innuendos or jokes? Are there inappropriate visuals within your workplace? If you witness any suspect behavior…
  • Intervene appropriately and promptly. Gather both parties and discuss the following, emphasizing again that impact weighs more heavily than intent.
    • Describe specific behavior observed
    • Focus on behavior observed vs. reason for behavior
    • Explain why behavior is inappropriate and/or unwelcome
    • Emphasize that behavior must stop
    • Address side issues raised by employee, but focus on purpose of meeting
    • Explain what is appropriate behavior — coach employee on how to monitor his/her future behavior
    • Document the meeting
  • Investigate allegations. Even if the alleged recipient asks that no action be taken, you must go through compliant procedure. Explain to the alleged recipient that it’s your responsibility to all parties and to the organization as a whole to deal with any harassment issues.
  • Remember, these are people. Don’t let compliance procedure get in the way of understanding and appropriately handling the issue. Be aware that there are likely to be emotions involved, so be sensitive to both parties. Remember to listen and be patient to gain a better understanding of the situation from both sides.
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