It isn’t a surprise. At least, it shouldn’t be. Anyone with eyes, ears and a job has long known that employees often make sexual comments at work. Though the behavior has long posed an obvious threat to employers, many ignore the risk until it leaps at them. They rely on a culture that keeps most offended workers – normally women – quiet for a variety of reasons.
Enter the #MeToo movement to change all that. Accusations about sexually improper behaviors are now common, empowering women with a sense that they no longer need to grin and bear offensive behavior as their complaints at last become worth making. Amid this trend, supported as it is by new initiatives to protect victims of sexual harassment, employers need to implement common sense steps to stop sex jokes and related conduct. Those who don’t may soon have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of reasons to regret their inaction.
A Fall 2017 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post illustrates the broad threat the #MeToo movement poses for employers. 54% of women surveyed said they received “unwanted and inappropriate” sexual advances at work, and 95% of them said such behavior normally is not punished by employers. About 80% of these women called the conduct harassing. Roughly 33 million women were sexually harassed at work, the poll concluded. Needless to say, that’s a lot of potential litigation.
So what’s an employer supposed to do?
Figuring out the answer to this question isn’t difficult, though implementing the solution will be at times. Employers need to act against sexual harassment by taking it seriously and insisting its employees do as well. They need to implement strong anti-harassment policies and follow them up with concrete action rather than simply drafting policies that live only in an employee handbook or on the wall of a lunch room. In a nutshell, no sex talk or behavior can be tolerated at work or at work events. There can be no exceptions.
Achieving this necessary result may be easier said than done. There is, of course, the company’s prior history with sex issues to deal with, along with the make-up of the work force, the kinds of jobs employees perform, and the manner in which workers are used to communicating, among other things. A change in focus may be a difficult thing for managers to implement and an even harder one for employees to accept. The fact is, however, that there’s no good alternative for employers, who are obligated by law to prevent sex harassment or face stiff penalties that may include lost wages, damages for emotional suffering, financial penalties, and hefty legal fees for attorneys on both sides of a dispute.
The most important point for employers to remember is that, once a new plan to combat sex harassment is implemented, it must be administered consistently over the long term. Employers need to first draw a line on sex-related workplace behaviors, then stand there and make sure workers do not cross it. Challenging as it may be at times, those who break rules must suffer consequences without favoritism. Only then will workers on both sides of the sex harassment issue get the message that sexual behaviors are not okay. Once this is clearly understood, perpetrators will be forced to self-regulate their conduct as recipients of “unwanted and inappropriate” sex talk feel empowered to complain. When that happens, employers must investigate promptly and deal decisively with any issues they uncover.
With these principles and objectives in mind, employers should embark on a multi-step program aimed at eliminating the risks posed by sexual harassment issues.
Our Suggested Program for Eliminating Risk:
1. Decide the program is worthwhile and commit to it at the highest managerial levels. If top leaders don’t buy in and mean it, what follows will likely be a waste of time.
2. Employers who don’t know already should evaluate workplace interactions to see how their employees are accustomed to behaving. A good baseline understanding of issues will be important as the threats they pose are communicated and employees are asked to change.
3. Review, revise as needed, and issue or re-issue a strong anti- harassment policy. It should cover not only sex but other forms of illegal harassment as well. All employees should get the policy, and all should be required to acknowledge receiving and reading it.
4. Be sure appropriate anti-harassment postings exist at work. Update or re-post them as needed.
5. Train key personnel and consider training other workers. At the very least, be sure all employees get an in-person overview of the company’s anti-harassment policy and have the chance to ask questions. Key managers should be present when this is done, at least to deliver the message that the company means what it says.
6. Re-issue the policy at least annually, as required by law. Train new hires, follow up after trainings, and provide refreshers and reminders. Task management with following up, answering questions, and addressing all sexual behaviors at work promptly.
7. Designate and train a key human resources person to answer questions and address complaints. Strange though it may seem, complaints about sexual behaviors are an employer’s friend, not its enemy. When workers believe the company will take them seriously and act, sexual harassment is normally dealt with internally. When they don’t, victims tend to remain silent and consider filing suit at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
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