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5 Effective Practices in Sexual Harassment Policies and Training [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (Third Quarter 2014)]

Author: Justin P. Sievert, Esquire (Senior Counsel)

Despite efforts to educate institutional staff members on sexual harassment, its prevention has still been an ongoing issue at many colleges and universities. In addition to the damage done to the harassment victim, sexual harassment can hurt department productivity and morale, and could end up costing your institution financially should a harassment claim be filed. As a result, Buckner has created a list of five effective practices institutions can implement in order to better prevent and manage sexual harassment.

Background

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant for a position within your department or an employee of your department) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Additionally, harassment does not necessarily need to be sexual in nature, but can include offensive statements about a person’s sex. It is also important to note that a victim and a harasser can be either a man or woman, and the victim and the harasser can be of the same sex.

Five Effective Practices to Consider

  1. Ongoing Review of Policies and Procedures: While most institutions have a policy statement that defines and expresses disapproval of sexual harassment, many fail to review their policy on an annual basis. Failing to update your policy on an annual basis could fail to address current issues and leave your institution vulnerable to a lawsuit. Additionally, this policy statement should be sent out to all institutional employees at least once per year (and at any time the policy is updated) as a reminder that your institution does not tolerate sexual harassment.
  1. Education: One common mistake institutions make is only educating employees on sexual harassment as part of the employee’s initial orientation. While it is important to address sexual harassment during initial orientation, an institution should also conduct a more advanced session that focuses solely on harassment issues and the institution’s policies and procedures relating to harassment. These advanced sessions should be conducted at least once per year for supervising staff members and at least once every other year for other staff members.
  1. Complaint Process: Institutions must develop a harassment complaint procedure that allows for different types of complaint paths. For example, if an institution’s only compliant path is through a supervisor and the supervisor is the alleged harasser, this leaves the potential victim with little opportunity for resolution. Additionally, a complaint procedure should also be set up where each complaint has a specific written outcome. Potential outcomes could be an informal resolution or a formal investigation conducted either internally or externally, depending on the nature of the complaint. Further, the complaint procedure should be made available regularly to all employees.
  1. Action: Once a complaint is filed, institutions must be prepared to immediately begin addressing the issue, which should include requesting written statements from involved parties. Additionally, institutions must decide whether the investigation will be handled internally through their human resources department, general counsel’s office, or externally through the retention of an outside firm. Further, institutions should remember it is essential, regardless of whether the investigation is handled internally or externally, that the investigator has sufficient experience in this type of investigation, and that they have the necessary resources to conduct a thorough investigation.
  1. Closing the File: Once an investigation is complete, institutions must ensure the complaint is properly closed. If harassment is found through the investigation, the harasser should be disciplined according to the institution’s written policies and procedures. If there is not enough evidence to support a finding of harassment, the institution should notify both the alleged victim (and complainant, if different) and the alleged harassers of the investigator’s finding. Further, institutions should continue to carefully monitor the situation to prevent any further issues.

Contact Justin P. Sievert (954-941-1844; jsievert@bucknersportslaw.com) for additional information on Title IX compliance program best practices.