John Malloy owns exec search firm Sanford Rose Associates-Santee, but he once owned a manufacturing firm whose workers were mostly male. "It was very clear we could be subject to issues if we didn't have the right policies in place," he recalls. So he and his staff crafted a sexual harassment policy after getting legal guidance and then trained the entire company.
Within weeks, a female employee complained that a male co-worker had made comments that were "a blend of obscenities and sexual innuendo," Malloy recalls. "He said things you wouldn't say to your wife or mother."
The guy refused to apologize. In fact, he made similar comments the following night. "He was great in terms of doing his job. He was very well liked," Malloy says.
Nevertheless, he was history. "We followed the procedure. He was suspended for a few days," Malloy says. "He came back and resumed the same behavior. So we terminated him."
The scandals that toppled high-profile figures such as NBC's Matt Lauer, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and even beloved NPR icon Garrison Keillor have awakened enormous interest in the harassment issue. And the #MeToo movement has inspired thousands of women to air their complaints. In an era of heightened risk, learn how to protect your company.
1. Your harassment policy needs regular review.
If you don't have a written sexual harassment policy, get one. Now. Already have one? Make sure to review it every three to five years so it's up to date and accurate, says Nicole Sodoma, managing principal of Sodoma Law. For instance, an older policy might not mention social media, or may have outdated instructions on how victims should report an incident.
2. Your entire company needs regular training.
"We recommend training once a year," says Jay Starkman, founder and CEO of Engage PEO, a professional employer organization. "It should touch on exactly what the company will do once a complaint is made, and what the ramifications will be." Live training is better than online, and the owner or CEO and other executives should attend. Their absence would be noticed and could be used as evidence of a harassment-tolerant culture.
3. Don't insist that all complaints go through you.
Experts say harassment victims should have choices about whom they report their stories to--the company owner or CEO should be just one option. "Ideally, where the alleged abuser and the victim are of the opposite sex, you want a female to interview the accuser if she's female, and a male if he's male," adds Russ Brinson, attorney at Sodoma Law.
4. Even if no one complains, you can still get in trouble.
Think that no complaints means everything's fine? That could be a mistake. Harassment victims have no legal obligation to alert their employers to the problem. If management has witnessed harassment or a hostile work environment and failed to take action, the company can be held liable.
5. Lack of intent doesn't matter.
"You hear from people that they didn't intend to offend anyone, were only joking, and when they put their arm around someone, it wasn't meant to be sexual," says David Lewis, CEO of HR consultancy OperationsInc. "That's almost irrelevant. The victim's viewpoint matters most." Employees have the right not to be touched at work, or addressed in a diminutive way or hear jokes about the tightness of their clothing, Lewis says. "People put way too much emphasis on intent rather than perception."
Is one of your workers being accused of sexual harassment or misconduct? These guidelines can help you manage a difficult issue.
Take immediate action.
The longer you wait to investigate, the greater the likelihood a frustrated accuser will look elsewhere for help. He or she might contact an attorney, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or an equivalent state agency. If the accuser does contact the EEOC, you can usually expect to spend a lot of time and money dealing with attorneys.
"They may not say who complained. They may just contact you and announce they're doing a general audit," says David Lewis of OperationsInc. "And they have a lot of latitude." If, say, the EEOC finds other employee issues such as wage unfairness or discriminatory hiring, it can pursue these as well. This is why you should deal with harassment claims swiftly and efficiently--before the EEOC gets involved. "Besides protecting employees, it saves time and money," says Russ Brinson of Sodoma Law.
Protect the accuser.
Other workers may be tempted to seek revenge, especially if the alleged harasser is well-liked. Even before there's an issue, says Brinson, "everyone must know that they can't retaliate." You need to figure out how to separate the accused and the accuser without it seeming like retaliation. The best solution may be for them to work from home or get paid leave.
Seek other victims.
Sexual harassment is rarely a one-time thing. Use due diligence to confirm there are no other victims or witnesses among people the accused has worked or traveled with. "Generally, when you go to other people, they say, 'Oh, he said this to me, too.' It's easier to come forward," Brinson says.
Be willing to terminate the perpetrator.
Some employers try to avoid firing a key employee by sending the person to counseling. But if the victim considers your response inadequate, he or she might still seek redress. Sanford Rose Associates' John Malloy says that after he fired an abusive employee at the factory he once owned, "there were no issues for several years."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the name of John Malloy's exec search firm. It is Sanford Rose Associates-Santee.