How companies should adopt new sexual harassment policies

Change has swept across the nation as the #MeToo movement has galvanized sympathy and support for victims of sexual harassment at work. At the local, state and federal levels, legislators are working to reassess and expand existing sexual harassment regulations, and employers are beholden to new laws that fortify protections for their employees.

Perhaps the most comprehensive overhaul of pre-existing sexual harassment measures occurred in New York, where — as of this fall — employers must come up with their own sexual harassment prevention policy and offer annual training to employees. The minimum requirements for each are detailed, explicit and based on high standards.

To parse through what the new legislation means for New York companies — and for other businesses that may have to institute similar laws in the near future — Ladders spoke with Tammy Tyler, an employment law compliance manager at payroll, human resources, and benefits outsourcing service provider Paychex.

Here are some of the takeaways from that conversation. 

How to inform

The sexual harassment prevention policy needs to outline or provide quite a few things, including: examples of prohibited conduct, details on federal and state sexual harassment provisions, a complaint form, investigation procedures, and other relevant information.

Tyler said those policies need a strongly worded statement saying sexual harassment is prohibited, information about how employees can address an unlawful situation and another strong statement that the company will not retaliate against employees. The policy needs to be communicated in a language audiences understand — meaning businesses may have to translate some of their literature.

Tyler recommended redistributing the policy to employees once a year and including it in the company handbook for reference.

How to train

In New York, businesses now have to provide employees with annual sexual harassment prevention training. That alone can be a major task, especially for companies with temporary people constantly cycling through the workplace.

But on top of the yearly mandate, the minimum requirements for training are demanding. As Tyler said, employers can no longer send employees to a corner to watch a video or read a packet. The training must be interactive, which means a more hands-on experience, even if videos are involved.

Some businesses will opt for e-learning, while others will look to office training. Either way, someone must be available to respond to employee questions in a timely manner.

The training must be repeated annually, so companies will need to come up with a program that can be replicated.

Though New York’s policy does not require employers to extend their training to independent contractors, Tyler said it would be a good idea to do so. And despite the fact that there is no requirement for businesses to keep track of whom they’ve trained and when they trained them, Tyler recommended companies have records. If an employee does file a sexual harassment claim, they’ll have on hand when everyone was last reminded of policy as a line of defense.

How to model

In an ideal world, Tyler said, training should be a “secondary thing.” The first priority should be creating a company that promotes respect.

“It needs to come from the top down in those companies. And it’s a culture,” Tyler said. “You’re fostering respectful behavior, and making sure that everyone understands that from the beginning.”

Though recent reports indicate women feel very little has changed for them in the workplace since the start of the #MeToo movement, Tyler said she has already noticed some businesses reacting to a heightened awareness around sexual harassment by letting go of problematic employees. And for good reason: “It can be pretty detrimental to an employer to have one of these lawsuits,” Tyler said.

“I think it’s changing, or will change,” Tyler said. “I’m hopeful, I guess. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m definitely hopeful.”