Revelations of sexual misconduct in the worlds of culture and business, as well as the rise of the #MeToo movement, should serve as a clear warning to CEOs and business owners. In today’s hypersensitive environment, business leaders ignore signs of workplace harassment (or worse) at their peril. A company without a viable, enforceable sexual harassment policy leaves itself open to beleaguered employees leaving a hostile work environment in droves and brings, at its worst, a bevy of costly lawsuits and threats of personal liability.
For these reasons—and to mitigate risk and the effect of brand-damaging news coverage—it’s essential to re-examine your company’s sexual harassment policy and update it as needed. Here are key steps to consider:
Ensure the policy is clearly defined. Many people cling to the misguided belief that “I know sexual harassment when I see it.” Unfortunately, that approach is too vague and subjective to have any value. The key to effective harassment prevention is ensuring that everyone throughout the organization understands specifically what constitutes sexual harassment, the consequences for taking part in unacceptable workplace conduct, the ways in which incidents of harassment can be reported and what will happen next.
Removing all ambiguity from your policies is among the most important elements of a formal anti-harassment program.
Don’t disregard or procrastinate on reports of harassment. As disagreeable as this behavior is, business owners and CEOs should never disregard reports that come to their attention. As writer Eric Rosenberg warns us, if you “ignore sexual harassment, you are sitting on a ticking time bomb.” It’s impossible to predict “when a claim may arise that could take down your business.” Updating and enforcing a viable policy can help prevent this dire outcome.
Anticipate likely situations in your workplace. Business settings differ widely, as do the ways in which employees interact with each other (and with their supervisors). Overt sexual harassment is generally easy to spot, but more subtle misconduct may occur in ways that are specific to a certain type of culture and workplace. Take time to anticipate scenarios involving harassment that might take place in your business. Imagining such circumstances can then lead to updates in policy that reflect a changing workforce culture.
Have your policy reviewed by a legal expert. As thorough as your policy might be, you must be sure it complies with all relevant local, state and federal statutes. The best strategy is to engage the services of an attorney experienced in this area, who can review the document and confirm that it’s both appropriate for your workplace and complies with the law.
Implement training schedules for all employees. Different states impose different types of regulations governing conduct in the workplace. Regardless of what’s legally mandated, ongoing training about how to avoid sexual harassment, and to identify and report incidents when they occur, should be required of your entire workforce. Knowledge and awareness are powerful resources in the effort to eliminate all workplace misconduct at your place of business.
Finally, do your best to lead from the top. Acknowledge at company meetings that company policies include zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment. “Make gender equity a part of your daily conversation,” advises organizational culture design expert Jessica Higgins. “Be sure it’s not only stated, but that it filters through meetings and informal interactions.”
Employees will follow your lead. It’s up to you to show the way.
Learn more about creating a safe workplace environment and leveraging your employees’ talents for strategic growth. Consider joining a peer board made up of local business owners like you.