How to Write a Sexual Harassment Policy

How to Write a Sexual Harassment Policy

There has never been a more important time to examine your sexual harassment policy. Use the template and follow the steps in this guide to write a better policy.

Since 1998, sexual harassment policies have focused on legal protection and risk management. The purpose has been to avoid liability in a lawsuit. Now, following the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment policies must be updated with a focus on respect, transparency and decency in the workplace.

This step-by-step guide takes you through the seven key sections of an effective sexual harassment policy. Plus, we share tips for distributing and enforcing the policy the right way.

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A tip for smaller companies looking to address sexual harassment:

Nearly half of employees work in small companies with fewer than 50 people. Working with fewer people does not mean a lower chance of sexual harassment. Smaller companies are actually more susceptible to sexual harassment for a number of reasons.

First, employees inevitably engage with each other more frequently. A close proximity makes harassing behaviors feel “disproportionately large”.

Second, smaller companies have smaller budgets to address sexual harassment. Smaller companies also have fewer resources, meaning there is probably no HR team or simple way to file a complaint.

Every company, no matter the size, needs a dedicated sexual harassment complaint form. Download this one for free.

Leaders of small companies may not be able to offer all of the perks and systems below, which is why it’s important to instead be conscious of work culture. Keep it healthy by handling complaints properly, establishing clear policies and enforcing them.

7 Key Sections of an Effective Sexual Harassment Policy

1. Purpose

Outline the purpose of the sexual harassment policy.

Elaborate on the company’s goals and commitments to a safe workplace and the approaches (such as zero-tolerance) you will take to fulfill these goals. Explain why this document has been created and what you hope to achieve with it.

For example, your purpose may read like this:

We are fully committed to fostering a safe and healthy work environment for all. Our goal is to protect our employees from unwanted and inappropriate sexual behavior.

We will take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and assault. These types of behaviors are prohibited inside and outside of the office, as per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This policy will include a sexual harassment definition, examples of sexual harassment, details about complaint mechanisms, an overview of the investigation and disciplinary processes and employee rights.

2. Scope

Outline the scope of the sexual harassment policy.

If investors or contractors for the company are expected to comply with the policy, note that. Explain who may be victims and who may be harassers.

What if the incident occurs outside of the work building? Or outside of work hours? Answer questions like these in this section so that victims know they can seek help if the incident happens after work or outside of the office.

For example, your scope may read like this:

The provisions in this policy apply to employees, managers, customers, investors, contractors and any other third parties involved with the company, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, role, status or other protected characteristic.

This policy on inappropriate behavior is not limited to what occurs inside the office. Sexual harassment will not be tolerated at work, at off-site gatherings or anywhere else.

We are committed to carrying out all provisions in this policy and monitoring its effectiveness. We will work with related parties to improve the policy and our processes on a consistent basis.

3. Definition & Examples

Many people have incorrect assumptions about sexual harassment since it’s not discussed as often or as openly as it should be. For this reason, your policy depends on a clear, strong definition of sexual harassment.

One way to effectively define sexual harassment is by including both its formal definition and examples of bad behavior.

Mention that sexual harassment is subjective in the sense that an action may be considered inappropriate depending on how it is perceived by the recipient. When it comes to sexual harassment, how the victim feels and how the harasser’s actions affect the victim have priority.

For example, your definition section may read like this:

Sexual harassment, according to the EEOC, consists of: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature… when a) an employment decision affecting that individual is made because the individual submitted to or rejected the unwelcome conduct; or b) the unwelcome conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment.

Sexual harassment can happen once or many times and may include physical, verbal or non-verbal actions. This form of harassment may make the victim feel offended, humiliated or offended.

Most* sexual harassment is subjective and circumstantial which is why there is no definitive, exhaustive list of inappropriate behaviors.

Instead, here are some examples of conduct that may constitute sexual harassment:

  • Sexual pranks, teasing, jokes
  • Verbal abuse of a sexual nature
  • Physical touching of a sexual nature
  • Giving sexually suggestive gifts
  • Making sexually suggestive gestures
  • Posting sexually suggestive pictures

*One exception is exchanging work-related benefits (or threatening work-related detriments) for sexual favors. This is always sexual harassment, regardless of the circumstances.

4. Filing a Complaint

In this section, provide employees with the information they’d need to file a complaint in the event that they’re the victim of, or witness to, sexual harassment.

Depending on the size and complexity of your company, as well as the location of your office(s), there may be a number of complaint mechanisms available.

And, once the complaint is received, it's just as important to respond properly. Educate yourself on complaint-handling best practices.

List how and where to file a complaint, whether that’s through an internal (designated official), external (hotline) or third-party (Ombudsman) mechanism.

Not only should this section provide practical information, but it should also encourage victims to be vocal. Explain why reporting inappropriate behavior is beneficial for the entire company. Acknowledge that it's worse to ignore bad behavior than to report something minor.

For example, this section may read like this:

We understand that a victim of sexual harassment may not feel comfortable filing a complaint formally, which is why we provide numerous ways to come forward with allegations.

If the misconduct is slight or infrequent, if the harasser is not their manager and if the victim feels comfortable, they may inform the harasser that their conduct is offensive and unwelcome.

If these efforts are ineffective or if the victim wants to escalate the issue, they can report the allegations in one of the following ways:

  • Organize a meeting with (or send an email to) a responsible official
  • Use the anonymous complaint hotline (via phone or online form)

All responsible officials are trained to address allegations of sexual harassment appropriately. They have been provided the tools to understand the incident and carry out the next steps.

Employees also have the right to use third-party national or local complaint mechanisms if they would prefer.

Employees can reach out to:

  • An Ombudsperson
  • An Employment Tribunal

5. Complaint Procedure

In this section, outline the responsibilities of investigators, managers and the Human Resources department regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and the company's complaint procedure.

Explain how sexual harassment allegations are handled. Touch on informal resolutions, formal resolutions, investigations and appeals.

Providing a step-by-step plan will comfort victims or witnesses of harassment who are hesitant to come forward because they are unsure of the process.

This section shouldn't be too detailed since every situation will differ, just include enough information to be open and transparent with employees.

For example, this section may read like this:

If a complaint is made, or if we have reason to believe there is sexual harassment occurring, we immediately investigate and address the allegations. Specifically, we:

  • Collect as many details as possible
  • Take immediate action (if the allegation warrants)
  • Choose an appropriate investigator
  • Conduct interviews with witnesses, the harasser and other related parties
  • Gather and document physical and digital evidence
  • Come to a conclusion about the allegations

If the investigation proves that the allegations are credible, then we immediately take appropriate corrective action. Depending on the severity of the sexual misconduct, corrective measures range from a single verbal warning to immediate dismissal and even criminal penalties.

Once the investigation has been closed, we will follow-up with the victim and related parties to obtain feedback and ensure that the issue has been resolved to their satisfaction.

6. Employee Rights

In this section, inform employees of their rights as an employee of the company.

For example, you may wish to remind employees that they have:

  • The right to a workplace free of harassment
  • The right, as a victim, to report inappropriate conduct without retaliation or repercussions
  • The right, as a witness or confidant, to report inappropriate conduct without retaliation or repercussions
  • The right to a quick and thorough investigation that is as confidential as possible
  • The right to seek mental or physical health help in a variety of ways

Help may come in many forms and can include taking paid sick or mental health days, using the Employee Assistance Program (or similar) or speaking to a company counselor or therapist.

For example, this section may read like this:

As a part of the team, you have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment and inappropriate conduct.

You have the right to report inappropriate conduct you experienced, witnessed or were informed of without the fear of retaliation or dismissal. You also have the right to report this behavior in the complaint mechanism of your choosing.

You are entitled to a quick, comprehensive and confidential (as much as possible) investigation into your allegations. Before, during and after the investigation you also have the right to repair your mental and/or physical health.

Employees have the right to not be penalized for using any of the assistance programs or perks that we provide, including:

  • Paid mental health or sick days
  • Employee Assistance Program
  • On-site counselors and therapists
  • Health insurance that covers external therapy

7. Disciplinary Action

In this section, reiterate that sexual harassment is taken very seriously by the company.

State that violations of the policy will not be tolerated and that harassers are subject to discipline appropriate to the circumstances.

Explain the disciplinary process for your company. For example, a first-time harasser who made inappropriate jokes in passing may receive a verbal warning. Second-time harassers may be demoted or transferred.

Explain that the disciplinary process will be applied consistently and evenly throughout the entire company, and even bystanders to sexual harassment will be subject to the same disciplinary process.

For example, this section may read like this:

We have established and implemented a disciplinary action process to ensure fairness and consistency across all incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Harassers will be subject to progressive disciplinary action as follows:

  • For infrequent or less serious allegations, the harasser may receive a verbal warning, a written warning or a negative performance review.
  • For periodic or more serious sexual harassment incidents, the harasser may receive a demotion, a transfer, a suspension and perhaps criminal penalties such as a fine.
  • For frequent or extremely serious allegations, the harasser will likely face termination and severe criminal penalties.

This disciplinary action process is only an outline and requires the company to determine the severity of the harassment. We reserve the right to stray from the process indicated above, depending on the severity of the incident and other circumstances.

Bonus Tip: To Reach Readers Better...

...incorporate the sexual harassment policy anywhere and everywhere you can.

Display it prominently in the new employee package or employee handbook. Redistribute it regularly to all employees and managers.

Take a moment during the yearly all-staff meeting (if you have one) to provide a refresher on the policy. Summarize and explain key points. Ask managers to speak to the policy with their reports on occasion.

It’s less important how you talk about the policy and more important that you do talk about the policy. Keep it fresh in everyone’s minds.

When the rules are clear, employees won't have to question whether behavior is acceptable. They'll be less likely to harass others and more likely to report incidents they witness.