While several well-known corporate executives, movie stars, government officials and other high profile people have been facing sexual harassment claims in recent weeks (and the list seems to increase daily), the issue is most assuredly not limited to those in the public eye. All employers are wise to use the focus on this issue to re-assess their anti-harassment policy and procedure for handling complaints. Additionally, it’s an opportune time to evaluate the culture management promotes to make clear that improper behavior will not be tolerated and to foster an environment which facilitates an employee’s ability to complain about offending behavior without fear of retaliation. So here are a few points to consider:
- Anti-harassment and Anti-discrimination laws have been in force for decades so companies should have well established policies making clear that offending conduct will not be tolerated. But just having a policy is only the beginning. Make sure you are properly enforcing your policies and take time to identify any knowledge gaps in your work force. The absence of complaints should not be taken as a sign that you don’t have issues in your workforce. Which leads to the next point…
- Make sure your employees are educated on your policy and the procedure for enforcing it. Training should be ongoing, not just when an employee joins the company. Some people work in the same job for years – they should be reminded of the company’s policies on a periodic basis, not less than annually. It is also important to evaluate the substance of your training to make sure the content is accurate, examples are meaningful and the message is easily understood.
- Make clear to employees that they can report issues without fear of retaliation. Explain the reporting process to make sure they understand where to go and with whom they can speak. The Human Resources Department or the Law Department should be seen as safe havens where employees can speak freely about their concerns. If you have a hotline to afford employees the opportunity to report issues anonymously, promote the number. Make it accessible to employees. Provide a means for employees to communicate with the Board of Directors to report matters involving the CEO or other senior officers – as we’ve seen in the recent examples, employees are often intimidated by and reluctant to report harassment by those at the highest level of the organization.
- Follow up – investigate all claims and report back to the complaining employee.
- Take appropriate remedial action and act consistently.
- Most importantly, set the proper tone at the top – senior executives should promote a culture in which tolerance and diversity are celebrated and illegal and improper conduct is not tolerated.
While the goal is a workplace free of improper conduct, we need to be realistic and understand some employees may experience unwanted and offensive behavior from their colleagues. So, learning from the current outcry of women and men who were afraid to call out sexual harassment for many years, management can and should take measures to create an atmosphere in which those who experience unwanted and offensive conduct feel their voice will be heard without repercussion.