Preventing workplace sexual harassment requires proactive actions

August 1st, 2018 / By: / Case Studies

Far too often, the process of making bad and/or unethical choices begins with a simple, almost thoughtless decision. How do I know this? Well, I’ve seen it happen far too often. Harassment is not a sexy subject, and ethics are more than words. “The times they are a changing,” and that’s more than just song lyrics—it’s a reality in our 21st-century workplace.

What was once tolerated (although illegal) is now covered in the media daily and creating more workplace disruption than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. Unethical activity, including sexual harassment, is front and center in today’s workplace, and training is critically needed because of the negative impact that harassment has on both the employer and employee.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” Sexual harassment can range from persistent offensive sexual jokes to inappropriate touching to posting offensive material on a bulletin board. Sexual harassment at work is a serious problem, and can happen to both women and men.

Both state and federal laws protect employees from sexual harassment at work. It’s a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Title VII is the base level for sexual harassment claims, many states have sexual harassment laws that may be even more strict. Check the laws of your state for more information.

But nothing was meant by it

Not long ago I spoke at a regional event comprised of small business owners and entrepreneurs. One of the featured speakers was a state representative—a champion for small business—who had a folksy style that the crowd adored. As he was concluding his remarks, off-the-cuff he told the audience of small business owners that he was just like them and would, from time to time, tell “off-color” jokes—“but not in a public setting.” If every choice has a consequence, then the burning question might be, what potential consequence might his “off-color” jokes have?

Two weeks ago, I read an article reporting that this up-and-coming state representative is not seeking re-election since it’s come to light that he’s been accused of sexual harassment by a staff member, citing as part of her claim that his “off-color” jokes were offensive and made her feel as if she were the target of his advances. Every choice does have a consequence.

I own the business and what I say goes

Another example from the small business world: A local owner of a community business who served families throughout the area was accused of harassment. The employee who was the target of the harassment complained to HR. Instead of taking decisive action, HR admonished the owner to “act better.” The owner’s response was to adjust the work hours of the complaining employee and create an unpleasant environment that (in most instances) would cause the person to leave.

Turns out that wasn’t what happened. The offended employee filed suit, and recently the jury awarded the employee a sizable sum for the harm caused by the harassing actions. Just in case you’re wondering, the award was $2.5 million (representing back wages and punitive damages). Yes, the costs of inappropriate behavior can be staggering and, in some cases, put you out of business.

Money is not the only cost

In addition to the time and expense of a potential complaint, harassment can affect the workplace in a negative manner by causing lower employee morale, increased absenteeism, lower productivity, decreased motivation and less commitment to the employer.

The challenge today is that what’s considered acceptable behavior in the workplace has changed, and changed rapidly. Mistakenly, we thought we knew what the lines of acceptable behavior were. Now the lines seem blurred. Many local and regional companies don’t have a sexual harassment policy, and if they do, they don’t follow it. To be clear: Having a policy is a great beginning, but it’s not enough.

When a claim is made, and in the “MeToo” environment we live in today, a claim could be made in your organization, the questions will be: what did you know; when did you know it; and what did you do about it?

The last question is the tricky one. What did you do about it? If you stumble when you try to answer that question, you’ll most likely find yourself facing a sizable award sum for not having any “teeth” to your sexual harassment policy.

Train and train again

Depending on someone’s internal compass, what one person can easily rationalize may be a problem for another. As managers, we need to educate our people on the significance of how sexual harassment (or any harassment for that matter) might exist—identifying what it sounds like and when it might appear.

When employees begin to understand what is truly expected of them and recognize that some past behavior—while once tolerated—is no longer acceptable and won’t be allowed, it becomes far easier to support each other in our ethical choices.

Live the culture you desire

Every business or organization needs to remember that the creation of an ethical culture is exemplified in the actual behavior and attitudes of all team members. The question is not so much whether you talk the talk (in policy documents, training materials, videos or webinars), but whether you walk the walk. The number one issue that comes to light in most cases involving sexual harassment is whether the leaders of the organization lead by example or are the worst offenders. To deal effectively with sexual harassment, you have to walk the walk. Owning the business or having a senior leadership role doesn’t give you permission to act in a way that is both unacceptable and illegal.

Want to create a culture of ethical behavior in your organization? It’s easy if you think about it. When you start by understanding how good people make bad choices, and follow it with an effective harassment training program that reinforces positive choices and accountability, you have a recipe for success. Every choice has a consequence. What choices do you make for your organization to help keep your most valuable assets between the ethical lines? Many local organizations offer practical trainings on avoiding sexual harassment. Investing in this kind of training could save you a great deal of time and money—and communicate to your employees that you expect your business to be a respectful work environment.

Chuck Gallagher is the president of the Ethics Resource Group and an international expert in business ethics. He provides training, presentations and consultation with associations and companies on ethics and creating ethical cultures. Information can be found at http://chuckgallagher.com,chuck@chuckgallagher.com, or call +1 844 234 1400.

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