How do you handle sexual harassment?

By Stephen W. Earnhart, MS

President and CEO

Earnhart and Associates, Dallas

Call it one of a manager's worse nightmares: It's Friday at 1:30 p.m. Three rooms running, short-staffed, delayed cases, and one of your nurses ask you, "Can we talk - in private?"

The last thing you need right now is one of your best employees resigning. You go into your office and close the door. You hear, "I think I'm being sexually harassed." Your nightmare is essentially just beginning. Chances are, if you've waited until this moment to prepare a plan to address this situation, you're too late.

Recent Supreme Court rulings relative to sexual harassment emphatically confirm and strengthen what the Equal Employment Oppor tunity Commission (EEOC) has stated all along. Sexual harassment awareness and prevention is a company's responsibility. And many companies, perhaps even your same-day surgery program, have taken this responsibility lightly.

The media, on the other had, have done an excellent job of educating - and sometimes misinforming - your staff. Several high-profile cases involving our country's most trusted leaders - presidents, judges, senators, and company CEOs - have created an awareness of sexual harassment never seen before. Also, The Civil Rights Act of 1991 added punitive damages to sexual harassment cases, where once we saw a slap on the wrist.

As a result, sexual harassment cases have dramatically increased. From 1991 to 1997, EEOC filings rose 150% relative to sexual harassment. Payouts in 1997 were $27.8 million, and many incidents never even made it to EEOC.

During this same time period, many company responses to the issue have been the same: Let's cross our fingers and hope it doesn't happen here. Oh sure, there's a sexual harassment policy in the handbook. However, training rarely takes place as a proactive measure. Typically, employee education takes place only after there is a damaging sexual harassment issue - many times this training has been EEOC mandated.

So what can an employer do to protect the company? Actually, it's quite simple and extremely cost-effective. By following these steps, you'll be on your way:

o Understand what sexual harassment is and is not. Just because an employee says he or she has been sexually harassed, doesn't mean it's so. (Although you still need to listen.)

There are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is easy to understand. This type of sexual harassment is the most blatant: "Have a sexual relationship with me, and you'll get promoted/ hired/good assignments. Refuse a sexual relationship, and you won't." A favor for a favor. It's also the type that, while it still exists, is not as prevalent as hostile work environment harassment.

Hostile work environment harassment occurs when there is behavior of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with a person's ability to do his or her job. The behavior must be pervasive, and it must be unwelcome. Hostile work environment can take many forms:

- verbal: dirty jokes and comments;

- nonverbal: leers and elevator eyes;

- environmental: pin-up calendars;

- electronic: intrusive or unwelcome e-mail and voicemail;

- physical: hugs and tickling.

There are often shades of gray. What's reasonable for one person may not be for another. Cultural and gender issues can come into play. Learn all you can about the issue so you feel comfortable confronting inappropriate behavior.

o Write a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment and all other types of inappropriate work behavior. Take sexual harassment definitions out of EEOC terminology and make them easy to understand. Have the CEO or president sign the policy and support it.

o Establish an effective complaint process. In your policy, clearly state the avenues an employee has for addressing sexual harassment complaints. Strongly state that no retaliation will take place for coming forward. Encourage staff to bring inappropriate behavior to management's attention. Follow your policy. Make the process credible.

o Publicize the policy and complaint process often. Introduce the policy with a meeting; explain it thoroughly, and reinforce the policy wherever you can. This includes during the employee orientation process, in the employee handbook, in your company newsletter, as well as during safety and staff meetings. Post the policy on every employee bulletin board. Document all efforts you have made to publicize the policy.

o Model behavior. Lead by example, and your employees will follow. Create a culture of respect for the individual as well as the company.

o Hold regular training sessions for all employees - not just for managers and supervisors. Talk about the issues. If sexual harassment is occurring in your workplace, you want to be the first to know. By training your employees, you foster open communication and trust, and you'll find out about your troubles before the EEOC does.

o Regularly train managers and supervisors. It's a complex issue, and their responsibility is a big one. They are your eyes and ears. Your company can be liable even without complaints.

o Take immediate corrective action on all complaints. No matter how minor, take quick action and keep it as confidential as possible. Gather all the facts and make an assessment of the situation. Sometimes this process requires terminating an employee; other times it requires a coaching and counseling session.

These steps are simple and cost a fraction of the cost of litigation or of losing your company due to a preventable situation. Don't hesitate - put your sexual harassment avoidance strategy together today.

[Kathy Dawson, president of The Dawson Group, a human resources company, assisted with this month's column. She can be reached at 5201 N. O'Connor Blvd., Suite 370, Irving, TX 75039. Telephone: (972) 831-1830. E-mail: dawsong1@flash.net. Earnhart can be reached at Earnhart and Associates, 5905 Tree Shadow Place, Suite 1200, Dallas, TX 75252. E-mail: surgery@onramp.net. Web: http://www.earnhart.com.]