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What Every Small Business Owner Needs to Know About Sexual Harassment
by Rieva Lesonsky
April 29, 2022
young business man harassing office woman sexually in modern office.

The #MeToo movement has brought national attention to the issue of sexual harassment, including in the workplace. Women and men in industries as diverse as advertising and even government are speaking out to tell their stories of being harassed on the job. Is anyone at your business being sexually harassed?

What can you do to prevent harassment from happening at your workplace?

Understanding Harassment

Employees are protected from harassment, sexual and otherwise, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the law applies to companies with 15 or more employees, even smaller businesses should take steps to prevent sexual harassment on the job.

There are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo: Submitting to or refusing unwelcome sexual advances or contact affects the “tangible employment actions” around the employee, such as whether s/he is hired, fired, promoted, or assigned to desirable shifts.
  2. Hostile environment: This type of harassment doesn’t result in tangible employment actions. However, the employee is subjected to enough harassment to create what a reasonable person would consider a hostile, offensive, or intimidating work environment.

Some forms of sexual harassment are clear-cut, such as physical harassment or requests for sexual favors. However, making offensive remarks about women (or men) in general can also be considered sexual harassment.

The Department of Labor cites the following examples of behaviors that may contribute to a hostile environment:

  • Off-color jokes
  • Commenting on someone’s physical attributes
  • Displaying sexually suggestive pictures
  • Using crude language
  • Making obscene gestures

Small business workplaces are typically close-knit communities, and some of the behaviors above may be part of good-natured teasing or friends joking around. But it’s easy for one person’s idea of humor to cross the line and offend someone else.

Here are some things you may not know about sexual harassment:

  • Sexual harassment doesn’t have to come from the employee’s direct supervisor. For example, a coworker, customer, or supervisor from a different department can be responsible for sexually harassing an employee.
  • Sexual harassment happens to men, too. According to the EEOC, last year men filed 16.6 percent of sexual harassment claims.
  • The victim and the harasser can be the same sex.

The best way to deal with sexual harassment is to prevent it in the first place. How?

  • Communicate to your staff that you do not tolerate sexual harassment. Put this policy in writing as part of your employee handbook that employees have to read and sign.
  • Establish a process for handling harassment complaints. Since employees are often harassed by supervisors, the supervisor shouldn’t be the only person employees can talk to. Let employees know they can come to you or another trusted manager who will be impartial.  
  • If a complaint occurs, take action quickly. You should talk to the employee making the complaint, the person accused of harassing them, and anybody else who can provide information (for example, others in the same department).
  • Keep complaints confidential as much as possible.
  • Create an atmosphere of open communication. If Joe’s suggestive comments are making Jane uncomfortable, she should feel safe telling him to stop. Simply letting coworkers know that attentions are unwanted sometimes can nip a situation in the bud before it becomes a formal complaint.
  • Be proactive. You’re the boss, so if you see or hear something that could cause a problem (like a pinup calendar on an employee's wall), don't wait for an employee to file a complaint. Take the offender aside, and resolve the situation one-on-one.

You can find more information on preventing harassment at the EEOC website, including its Guidance on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors. When in doubt, always consult your attorney for guidance on any employment matters.

Your SCORE mentor can help you navigate thorny issues like harassment in the workplace. 

About the author
Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is president and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog
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