Practical Ways to Address Workplace SXH Problems

By Schumacher, Joe; Fester, Judy | Public Management, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Practical Ways to Address Workplace SXH Problems

Schumacher, Joe, Fester, Judy, Public Management

The Stakes Are High in Workplace Harassment

How would you respond to this question, taken from an actual errors-and-omissions insurance policy questionnaire?

"In the past year, what specific steps have you taken to educate your employees and managers about workplace sexual harassment?"

Imagine the impact of a "nothing" response to this question on a jury weighing an employer's liability in a sexual harassment suit. If this scenario strikes a nerve, it is time to update and reinforce your sexual harassment policy. The alternative to a proactive, responsible SXH program could be corrective action by the courts, including compensation and punitive damages.

If tested in court, could your SXH program pass judicial muster? Could you prove that the policy is current, thoroughly distributed throughout the workforce, and clearly understood by all employees?

SXH of women is prevalent in positions historically held by males, such as police officers, firefighters, utility line workers, construction workers, power plant operators, railroad engineers, and aircraft pilots. Because these are high-risk, high-stress occupations that demand teamwork and mutual trust, sexual harassment can be particularly destructive in these jobs.

The stakes are high in workplace harassment, both in human and financial terms, as Jacqueline Peavy described in her article "Stopping Sexual Harassment in the Workplace," published in the September 1995 issue of PM. This article offers additional strategies for public managers seeking to prevent harassment. A sample SXH policy statement, several illuminating police and fire department case studies, and tips for addressing common SXH problems also are included.

First, Let It Be Known

To begin with, notify employees in writing of the organization's official SXH policy. Ensure that it is unequivocally clear, impartially fair, and deadly serious. This critical policy must be delivered to each employee.

The Arvada, Colorado, Fire Protection District mailed out its SXH policy as an "Important Memorandum" (see feature box) to the homes of employees, distributed the policy during SXH training classes, placed a copy in each employee's personnel file, and attached a copy to the employee's annual evaluation, with a reference in the evaluation itself.

Note the strong tone and clear message of this memorandum. The employer affirmatively introduces the issue of SXH, firmly rejects harassing behavior, provides examples of SXH, guarantees that each complaint will be taken seriously, specifies whom to contact to report SXH, and pledges protection to the potential plaintiffs from retribution or retaliation. (Juries find retaliation, especially by management, particularly repugnant.) It also states possible sanctions against the offending employees.

The lesson here is that the phrase "up to and including termination" places potential offenders on notice that SXH is a terminable breach of a strictly enforced personnel policy.

Further Steps

Other strategies that an organization can take include the following.

Make SXH guidelines part of the organization's guiding values. Employees first must recognize unacceptable behavior before they can eliminate it. To help them, provide meaningful SXH guidelines. Include specific examples of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, then thoroughly distribute the guidelines. Reinforce these guidelines in training sessions and staff meetings, post copies on bulletin boards, and mount a framed copy on the wall of each manager's office.

Common examples of risky behavior include deliberate staring, patting, stroking, pinching, cornering, lip smacking or throwing kisses, howling, or catcalls; sending unwanted letters, notes, or phone calls of a sexual nature; personal gifts; and referring to an adult as a girl, babe, sweetie, or stud.

Urge employees to tell colleagues when a comment or behavior is offensive to them. …

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