No small business owner wants a lawsuit or even an allegation of sexual harassment at his or her workplace.
It’s expensive, time-consuming, and nowadays the pure optics of being an employer that tolerates sexual harassment can put you out of business. I myself am a small business owner and like many of us is terrified of a lawsuit occurring. So, what can a small business owner do to prevent this from happening?
- Have sexual harassment training for all employees – Employees are trained on computer systems, how to file expense reports, the company’s travel policy, etc. But are they ever trained on sexual harassment? Ironically, I worked at four law firms and never recall getting any training on this or any other federal law for that matter. It’s important during the employee onboarding process that all employees (even part-timers) are educated about the federal and state laws regarding sexual harassment. You would be wise to add in other federal statutes too – those governing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, women and older workers. Employees need to know that this type of behavior is not acceptable at work and that the company has a “zero tolerance” policy. You can have your internal Human Resources team do this training or (even better) hire a benefits consultant to do a one-day session at work.
- Have an accessible Human Resources Director – In general, workers fear any encounter with HR because it often means that you are losing your job or getting into some kind of trouble. Employees also feel like the HR department isn’t going to do anything because they work for and are paid for by the company. It’s important for the company’s employees to feel like HR is a neutral arbiter of conflict – an ombudsman that they can go to for resolution of problems at work. The HR Director should not just be behind a desk doing payroll and benefits. HR needs to be out and about at the office fostering a climate of collegiality as well as openness. The employee needs to know that there is a confidential reporting system at work and that HR is accessible and responsive.
- Have a culture that encourages diversity and collegiality – Ask any potential hire today, culture is everything. It’s a significant factor, often above compensation, for recruits when they are choosing where they are going to work. Employees need to know that there are people just like them at that top. The C-suite shouldn’t be homogeneous but rather include women and minorities because they bring a unique perspective and also reflect the composition of the workforce. Moreover, workers may feel more comfortable coming forward if they see that those at the top are like them and are open to their concerns. In addition, company leaders need to create a culture of collegiality not conflict. Offsite team building events such as bowling or baseball games encourage coworkers to engage on a more personal level, and relationships develop thereby promoting greater teamwork and collegiality at the office.
- Do a thorough internal investigation – Unfortunately, sometimes even the best prophylactic measures to do not work, and an allegation of sexual harassment will be filed. If this does occur, HR needs to take it seriously and do a thorough and complete internal investigation. Women often do not come forward at work with sexual harassment claims because they fear retaliation – especially if the accused is a superior. Once the claim is filed, HR needs to let the accused that retaliation is illegal. While every person in this country, regardless of the claim, is entitled to due process, HR needs to interview witnesses, review documents, and conduct a thorough investigation. If the claim does prove to be meritorious, HR needs to have that “zero tolerance” policy in effect and terminate the accused’s employment. Too often men get sent to “sensitivity training” or get some other slap on the wrist – another reason why women do not report sexual harassment. The company needs to set the stage letting all employees know that this conduct will not be tolerated at work.
Esme Oliver is the author of Smoke, Drink F*#K — an acclaimed romance novel that has been featured in Bustle, the Huffington Post and NPR. She has worked as an attorney, a health-care lobbyist, and a legislative director for two US Senators; work which sharpened her left brain but didn’t quite fulfill her soul. Esme eventually left DC for her native Midwest, where she now writes grants (for money) and stories (for fun). She enjoys lots of travel and a long list of other activities that pair well with a nice Pinot. @Esme_SDF