Ethics and Sexual Harassment: Are Your Policies Up to Date?

policy June 30, 2020 By: MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE and Jonathan Howe

Your policies and procedures that protect employees from sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination based on sex should be reviewed regularly to ensure two things: that that they comply with the law and that they are consistent with your organization’s ethical standards.

In a landmark case that brought sexual harassment to the forefront and spawned the #MeToo movement, movie producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sex crimes earlier this year. While COVID-19 has forced the #MeToo movement out of the headlines, the Weinstein case is a reminder that every organization needs clear and enforceable policies against sexual harassment in the workplace—whether the inappropriate conduct is man to woman, woman to man, same sex, boss to subordinate, or any other scenario that falls into this broad category.

If your organization has not reviewed its sexual harassment policy recently, now is a good time to ensure that this policy—along with other policies and procedures that address sex discrimination in the workplace—is up to date and provides all employees adequate protection.

The Law and Ethics

In many respects, the law is the lowest common denominator in the behavior index. The legal, medical, and many other professions have licensing requirements and codes of conduct that practitioners must abide by. A code of conduct or ethics code goes further than the law: Subscribing to conduct your activities in accordance with a code of ethics means that you not only will obey the law, but that you will go above and beyond that requirement.

In the past, codes of ethics were generally designed to protect you from your competitors. Today they are designed, for the most part, to protect those with whom you do business—including the people in your workplace.

The ASAE Ethics Committee recommends that association sexual harassment policies include the following elements:

  • Underlying principles
  • Definition of harassment
  • Clear reporting procedures
  • Responsibly of supervisors and witnesses
  • Direct communication with the alleged offender
  • Clear and prompt investigation procedure with due process provisions
  • Potential sanctions
  • Anti-retaliation provision
  • False accusation provision
  • Statute of limitations (if any)

The best way to check the validity of your policies and procedures is to test them against a scenario. Here is an unusual one that many policies may not cover, demonstrating why sexual harassment and related policies need regular review and updating.

If your organization has not reviewed its sexual harassment policy recently, now is a good time to ensure that it is up to date and provides all employees adequate protection.

Steps to an Update

Marla Haywood is executive director of the XYZ Association, which has 10 employees, including herself. Patrick Middletown excels at his technology job at the association. Patrick approaches Marla to inform her that he has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and will transition to female, using the name Patricia.

Marla expresses support for Patricia, and as they work through questions about informing staff and other matters related to Patricia’s transition, Marla recognizes that the association’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies do not reflect transgender issues. She commits to updating the policy manual to ensure it complies with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations and says she will ensure appropriate training for staff in the near future.

Marla begins the arduous task of reviewing all documents, following this checklist:

  • Review EEOC regulations as they relate to sexual harassment—including protections for transgender individuals—and detail changes that need to be made in the XYZ Association policy manual.
  • Consult with other team members to ensure they understand that Patricia must be treated in a respectful and professional manner.
  • Consult with Patricia on what pronouns she uses and ensure that all team members use them.
  • If a team member persists in using incorrect pronouns, advise the individual that his or her disrespect will not be tolerated.
  • If Patricia decides to seek medical transition, ensure that she has information regarding medical and other insurance plans available.
  • Update all personnel records with Patricia’s new information.
  • Ensure that all policies are inclusive of gender transition guidelines.
  • Ensure that gender identity and expression are included in the association’s policies as protected categories.
  • Ensure that in-house training programs avoid stereotypes.
  • Determine how restrooms and restroom policies will be adjusted for fair and unrestricted access.
  • To ensure inclusivity, make sure that policy revisions discuss treatment of transgender men and women.
  • Add a glossary of terms related to gender identity and expression, including transgender, cisgender, crossdresser, drag queen, nonbinary, and transitioning. Also identify terms that are unacceptable to use, such as “transgender” as a noun and “sex change.” (The GLAAD Media Reference Guide is a helpful resource.)
  • Consult with legal counsel to ensure the new policies and procedures comply with laws and regulations.

Compare your own association’s policy documents against this list to determine whether your policies adequately cover this scenario or others you may not have considered. And review your anti-harassment and other anti-discrimination policies regularly to ensure that they are both fully compliant with the law and, beyond that baseline, consistent with the ethical standards of your organization.

MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE

MaryAnne Bobrow, CMP, CMM, CAE, is president of Bobrow Associates, Inc., an association and meetings management company in Citrus Heights, California.

Jonathan Howe

Jonathan Howe, J.D., FASAE, is founding partner at Howe & Hutton, Ltd.