Don't let shock lead to denial. As soon as you know, you must act.
Scandals in the science world happen, but they tend to revolve around doctored data and sloppy research, not sexual harassment. But right now, scientists are in the news--not for groundbreaking research but for some sleazy goings-on.
The first is the case of Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist who blogs at Scientific American under the banner "The Urban Scientist." She was contacted about writing for another publication. She asked a very sensible question--does this writing job pay? The answer? No. She turned it down. That should be the end of the story, right?
But it's not. The editor from Biology Online, named Ofek, responded, "Because we don't pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?" Dr. Lee, quite rightly, wrote about this and published the email exchange. (That in itself caused a kerfuffle and probably involved some phone calls to lawyers.)
Biology Online did the right thing and immediately terminated Ofek. This is not the type of person you want on your staff. Period. And when you have an employee who is engaging in inappropriate behavior you need to deal with it immediately, and they did. Good for them.
And all other editors at scientific publications took a collective deep breath and said, "So glad that wasn't my employee!" Except there was another employee, this time at Dr. Lee's own organization, Scientific American. Turns out Bora Zivkovic, the blogs editor, had been doing some sexual harassment of his own.
Turns out Scientific American was aware of the harassment of one person, Monica Byrne, which they handled to Ms. Byrne's satisfaction. But, when Dr. Lee wrote about her episode, Ms. Byrne decided it was time to name Zivkovic, and that gave other women the desire to come forward. When others came forward, Zivkovic resigned from Scientific American.
Your eyes may have bugged out when you heard these stories, and you thanked your lucky stars that you don't have anyone on your staff like Ofek or Zivkovic, right? Well, until this all came down, Biology Online and Scientific American didn't know they had people like this on their staffs either. Just what should you do when you are made aware of improper and illegal behavior at your office?
1. Don't ignore it or laugh it off. Yes, sometimes people are too sensitive. Your job as the boss is to take complaints of sexual, racial, ethnic or other illegal harassment seriously. And, I'll add, while it's perfectly legal to be an equal opportunity jerk, you should take accusations against a jerky manager seriously too.
2. Investigate. This should be done as promptly as possible. Some things require very little investigation--Ofek's emails were there in black and white. Other things are not that straightforward and require digging and questioning. Here's a brief guide on how to investigate sexual harassment.
3. Act. You don't have to fire the harasser. And, in fact, Scientific American didn't fire Zivkovic with the first accusation a year ago. But, when additional information came out, they acted again. This time Zivkovic resigned, but Scientific American could have chosen to terminate him or chosen to send him to sensitivity training. According to employment attorney Jonathan Hyman's fabulous book, The Employers Bill of Rights, courts usually won't second guess which punishment you use. They just want to make sure you did something to try to solve the problem, and if that doesn't work, that you did something more harsh.
4. Have a clear policy in place and follow that policy. The last half of that sentence should not be necessary--after all, what's the point of having a policy in place if you're going to ignore it? Well, lots of companies do just that. Don't. Follow your policy to the letter.
You can't always spot the sleazy employees in a hiring interview, and sometimes the people who seem the nicest turn out to be horrible. No one blames you for that. But once you know, you must act.