Written by:  Cheryl Nathan, Director HR Services

    The recent case of Hewlett-Packard’s CEO Mark Hurd has made not only HR headlines, but national news headlines.  In the HR world, it has provided a real life example of how sexual harassment in the workplace extends beyond “regular” employees – in this case, to outside contractors.  The implications from this case also emphasize the need for employers to be pro-active in their sexual harassment prevention programs.

    As Fall approaches, employers should realize that “offense” and “defense” are not just terms used to describe their favorite NFL teams.  An article I read recently about the aftermath of the HP case stated that “the best offense is a good defense”.  This article discussed the need to create a sexual harassment policy that:

    • Clearly defines what will not be tolerated
    • How to report incidents
    • How investigation will occur

    The article also recommended administering annual training sessions on sexual harassment – what it is, how to avoid it and what to do when and if it occurs.  It indicated that separate training should be conducted for managers and supervisors to ensure that they understand the procedure and their role in handling complaints.

    sexual harassment policyI have conducted many sexual harassment training programs for companies while employed with FosterThomas that do just as the article outlined.  And although the sessions may sometimes start out awkward because it’s a topic that most do not feel comfortable talking about – and although there may be a few snickers along the way when we discuss examples – the end result is the same… all employees leave that training understanding what is and is not acceptable workplace behavior.

    Federal law does not require Supervisor or employee sexual harassment training, however several states have enacted legislation either requiring or encouraging employers to provide such.

    Some states even outline details regarding what needs to be covered in such training and how long the training needs to be.  Additionally, federal contractors are required to have a strong sexual harassment policy/program and to ensure that all employees are fully aware of such program – this is most often achieved through sexual harassment training.

    The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for conducting enforcement litigation for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  With respect to sexual harassment, the EEOC states that “prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.  Employers are encourages to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring.  They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.  They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.”

    The HP case highlights the extended liability companies face when it comes to sexual harassment.  And going back to that original quote – “the best offense is a good defense”.  I think the reverse of that quote is also applicable.… the best defense is a good offense… strong, clean policies and corresponding training and the ability to show that all complaints from all persons (employees, applicants, vendors, contractors) were acted upon diligently and consistently following workplace policy guidelines.

    Being able to demonstrate this defense if an employee’s behavior goes astray may help protect employers from expensive and time-consuming litigation.