Before one of the largest sexual harassment scandals in history broke a few weeks ago (in terms of the number of women allegedly affected), there were names such as Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and, going way back, Clarence Thomas. Even Ben Affleck has been accused of sexual harassment involving individuals whom he worked with going back some 15 years. There have also been scandals in practically all divisions of the military as well. The recent scandal involving Harvey Weinstein has brought out numerous alleged victims, 38 and counting. When one of these types of scandals comes to light, and someone is the first to speak up, it inspires a domino effect where more alleged victims are willing to come forward.
While your business will certainly never face the same scope and size of the scandal surrounding media mogul Harvey Weinstein, there were almost 13,000 cases of sexual harassment filed with the EEOC in 2016 (this number does not include the thousands of cases filed with state and local agencies). You can be sure that this number will dramatically increase for 2017, in light of these other scandals. All business owners should be asking themselves if they are providing enough education and training to their employees and management team to protect not only their employees, but their business, from a sexual, or other Title 7 protected class, harassment claim. While no employer can ever be 100% immune to a claim of harassment, here are a few things you should most certainly be doing within your organization to protect your business to the greatest extent possible:
*Have a clear policy in your employee handbook that states that your company does not tolerate any type of harassment, a definition of what defines harassment, the chain of command when it comes to reporting harassment, and action(s) that will be taken should the employee not follow your policy.
*Training for all new hires. It’s not enough to state your harassment policy in your handbook, you must also take an active approach to educating your employees. Whether it be on-line or in-person, all new hires should be subject to some type of harassment training which requires them to acknowledge that they understand the employer’s policy and agree to comply.
*On-going annual training. Again, besides just having the policy in your handbook and having new hires made aware of it, you must also provide on-going trainings to remind employees that you take harassment seriously. Any time you hold an annual training, whether it be on-line or in-person, you should have the employees in attendance sign something which shows they participated and understand the content of the training.
*Don’t make it difficult for employees to file a complaint. Have a complaint form on the company’s main drive or intranet. Also, make it known which position(s) in the company employees with complaints of harassment should report to, or the chain of command they should follow if they have a complaint.
*Conduct exit interviews with all employees. You may never know that harassment is occurring until an employee leaves your employment and then divulges that the reason they left had to do with harassment. If you don’t ask, you may never know (and not knowing doesn’t get you off the hook if there is harassment occurring within your organization).
*Conduct separate trainings with your management team. These individuals are considered agents of your company and this makes them liable for anything they do or say, as well as holds them to a higher responsibility should they discover that harassment is occurring. Management must be willing to remain objective and neutral when it comes to employee complaints, as well as be fair and consistent. Your managers are responsible for creating and fostering civility within your company.
*All employees, no matter who they are, how well they perform or where they fall on the corporate “ladder” should be accountable for their actions.
*And, always remember that harassment doesn’t just occur between employees; it can occur with vendors or clients as well.
With the current climate surrounding harassment (it’s a hot, trending topic #metoo), employers would be wise to review their harassment policy, make improvements if warranted, and provide their employees some long-overdue training so that they know you are serious about preventing and addressing harassment in all forms.
The contents of this article should not be construed as legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel should you have questions regarding any legislation, state or federal, that may affect your business.