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The Difference Between a Sexual Harassment Policy & an Abuse Prevention Policy

An employee sexual harassment policy is focused on preventing and responding to employee sexual harassment and discrimination.  An abuse prevention policy is focused on keeping children, consumers, vulnerable, and elderly in your programs safe from sexual, physical and mental abuse. Ensuring strong policies for both can keep you, your staff, and those you serve safe.

An employee sexual harassment policy is designed to prevent harassment and discrimination against individuals who have specific unchangeable characteristics. The types of protected classes vary by state, but federal protections exist for the following classes:  race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history). Sexual harassment is a type of harassment based on sex. Most organization’s sexual harassment policies prohibit harassment and discrimination but fall short of formalizing preventative measures or providing guidance for different interactions. For example, many policies have a zero-tolerance statement but fail to define appropriate and inappropriate interpersonal behaviors for the office environment.

Additionally, organizations do not adequately train on preventative measures–a fact noted by the EEOC in its 2016 Study of Harassment in the Workplace. To effectively move toward prevention rather than compliance with baseline legal standards, organizations need to empower employees to intervene when they encounter harassment. Even if they are not the target, organizations should craft policies and train employees to stop would be harassers early in the process. This should be done before harassing behavior meets the legal definition of sexual harassment. Harassers often follow the pattern of adults who groom children–they start with boundary crossing and red flag behaviors and continue to escalate unless or until these behaviors are addressed. These types of patterns are what make having proper policies in place crucial.  Working toward prevention saves organizations time and money and positively impacts the bottom line. Studies show that organizations which provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination tend to have less turnover and higher employee performance and productivity.

Similarly, effective abuse prevention policies focus on prevention rather than solely on legal compliance. Such laws essentially are legal zero-tolerance statements, which, as discussed supra, is not nearly enough to prevent abuse from happening. Organizations need robust abuse prevention policies that define appropriate and inappropriate actions for adults and youth. Such policies must include information about reporting and responding to concerns, so when issues arise, guidance is easy to find. Praesidium’s Model Policies delve into specific types of interactions frequent in youth programming and provide guidance and best practices for a host of situations unique to youth programs such as supervision of high-risk areas and activities. Praesidium’s Model Policies also contain direction for responding to suspicious or inappropriate behaviors or policy violations, suspicions of abuse, and youth-to-youth sexual activity. These in-depth policies are an excellent tool for preventing abuse, but policies alone will not ensure that incidents don’t occur!

Praesidium has spent over 25 years working with organizations to prevent abuse. In doing so, we have learned that prevention is not as easy as developing a zero-tolerance statement or even creating an exhaustive policy manual. Managing the risk of abuse, much like that of sexual harassment, takes an operational or systems-based approach. Organizations must have policies defining appropriate and inappropriate interactions and prescribing consequences when those policies are violated.  During the screening process, questions should be asked that probe at the applicant’s history and risk for abuse or harassment.  Likewise, ensure to include training, not just for new employees, but for all, on the organization’s policies and expectations. This level sets the acceptable bandwidth of behavior across the organization and helps employees and leaders spot actions that are outside that acceptable range.

It is crucial to also provide a method for reporting concerns. Providing such a method allows individuals to bring policy violations to leadership who then can document and respond accordingly using a continuum of responses. Failure to respond accordingly can lead to a loss of trust in the organization and low morale. Loss of trust and lowered morale undermine the organization’s existing abuse prevention or harassment work and, in many cases, this fatigue can lead to more incidents. Successful prevention efforts take a significant commitment of time and resources, but in the end, it is worth it! Praesidium knows this work can seem daunting but have tools, resources, and consultation to help you through it.