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No one wants to talk about sexual harassment. I didn’t even want to write the article. It made me uncomfortable. But harassment (and cybersecurity) is one of the biggest issues facing businesses today. The main reason so many businesses are vulnerable to these threats is that no one thinks it can happen to them.
When I started working back in the mid-nineties for a consulting firm, sexual harassment training consisted of a mandatory video for all new employees. It put most of the onus on the employee to report harassment. The video made some references to inappropriate behavior and defined sexual harassment, but did little more to continue the conversation. It was just something that needed to be marked off on the new hire checklist.
A few years later when I worked in banking, I had a fellow employee file a complaint against my boss for sexually harassing me. I learned of it when the company investigated it. She never said a word to me beforehand. Never asked if he was being inappropriate. It all stemmed from her believing he spent too much time talking to me in my cubical (in front of everyone, I might add). And what were we talking about? Work of all things. Always work. I was a newbie eager to learn the ropes and had lots of process questions. No funny business on either of our ends. But someone thought she was doing the right thing by turning him in and an investigation had to be conducted.
These types of allegations can happen to anyone, any business, at any time. Sexual harassment looks a lot different in 2018 than it did as portrayed in WKRP in Cincinnati with all the men chasing after Loni Anderson.
From a business risk perspective, sexual harassment has only one solution. It cannot be tolerated. There can be no shades of gray (pun intended) when your employees and your livelihood are on the line.
Your policies and investigatory process must be communicated clearly in something more than just a video and a checkbox on the onboarding list.
Make Your Message Clear
No one thinks sexual harassment is good for business. Even those who do it.
It doesn’t take much to understand what it could cost you financially. Fox News paid $13 million over the Bill O’Reilly allegations. A hospital in Sacramento awarded a physician’s assistant $168 million for lost wages, mental anguish, and punitive damages. While these sorts of judgments come from deep pockets, ask yourself if your business could weather the negative publicity at a time when the issue is at the forefront. For most businesses, the answer is no.
- It needs to start at the top. You can assign the role of creating a code of ethics for your company to your best person, but if the CEO or owner is dating a co-worker, there’s an issue, even if it’s consensual. You’re opening the business to immense risk. It’s also not always as apparent as two single people dating. If someone at the top is making inappropriate jokes, laughing at jokes made by others, or even making someone feel uncomfortable by lingering glances, there can be issues. These types of actions set the stage for all employees. Since the law is on the side of the person claiming sexual harassment or the whistleblower (as far as job protection is concerned), you want to ensure the top of your company is clear on what is unacceptable. This will help show others that this type of action is not okay.
- Conduct an audit. You need to do more than just put a plan in place for issues going forward. You want to be proactive. Review all past complaints of sexual harassment or exit interviews that could be throwing shade on how someone conducted themselves. Knowing your company history is important and will help you understand what could come up in the future.
- Introduce an ethics hotline. Most larger companies have this already in place. But make sure people can report issues to someone other than those in their office. Many times, friendships exist that feel intimidating when it comes to filing complaints. If the HR person is best friends with the CEO, an employee may not feel comfortable sharing the issue and may take it directly to an attorney. This might be able to be avoided if you institute an unbiased hotline reporting process.
- Be clear on a code of conduct. Work with an attorney or corporate counsel to draft an employee pledge or code of conduct. Is fraternizing allowed? Encouraged? Include areas where there may be more chance for something to happen like overnight travel or conferences. Be specific about these stipulations. Also note how each infraction should be reported and how it will be handled after the report. State that you have a zero-tolerance policy on the matter.
- Investigate all allegations. From a risk perspective, it is necessary to investigate each allegation. If it appears to be credible (it’s best to err on the side of caution here), consider placing the person in question on paid leave while an investigation can be conducted.
- Avoid the 3 Ds. Don’t deny, defend, or dismiss. This is not an attack on your business, although it likely feels like one. How you handle the allegation is what matters most here.
These tips were based on the 15-point plan to end sexual harassment at the workplace. You can learn more here.
As always, it’s important to understand the laws in your province. There are issues on both ends. You may have claims that aren’t substantiated. You may come across something that shocks you. But the one thing you cannot afford to do as a business owner is to think this is about the casting couch and Hollywood.
Employees’ awareness on the issue has been raised so yours must be too.
Christina R. Green teaches small businesses, chambers, and associations how to connect through content.