Zero tolerance

Businesses are increasingly finding that the best way to minimize their chances of being sued for sexual harassment is to adopt a zero-tolerance policy.

These policies define the company’s position on sexual harassment while providing employees with clear workplace protections.

In creating a sound policy, businesses must first define sexual harassment, which can range from inappropriate gestures, touching, comments and jokes to potentially offensive materials such as calendars, comics, e-mails and the distribution of information from Web sites. The policy should include explicit examples of improper activity.

With that in mind, business leaders should also include these elements when developing a zero-tolerance policy:

* A statement informing employees that they could be terminated as a result of any of the prohibited activities. This conveys that the company takes sexual harassment seriously and serves as a deterrent to people engaging in these activities.

* Words encouraging employees to come forward if they witness or are subjected to acts of sexual harassment. The policy should define reporting procedures and identify key people within the organization who can be approached by employees in such cases.

* A statement assuring employees that complaints will be confidential to the extent possible and that anyone registering complaints will not be subjected to retaliation.

* Some companies include a statement prohibiting consensual relations between supervisors and direct subordinates. Some human resources professionals have even advocated requiring the subordinate involved in such a relationship to sign a consensual relationship agreement. Relationships between an employee and a direct supervisor can put a business in a precarious situation, and addressing the situation in your policy is advisable.

* A letter that requires an employee’s signature acknowledging that he or she has read, understands and will comply with the policy.

Finally, zero-tolerance policies are useless without proper implementation. While business owners and managers may be inclined to allow some potentially offensive materials such as comics on a bulletin board or calendars in the shop, they should keep in mind that this is tantamount to a violation of the zero-tolerance policy.

Business managers must weigh the benefits vs. the risks of allowing such activity; usually, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Peter Poulos ([email protected]) is a partner in the Cleveland office of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP