We have become well-conditioned to respond to the sound of a fire drill or a tornado warning. But to rumors of sexual harassment? Not so much.
This is a problem with potentially disastrous consequences for many American employers and not simply because of the risk of litigation. As recent allegations in the news have demonstrated, unaddressed sexual harassment spreads like a fire and causes destruction like a tornado, with the potential to destroy a business. Not only is a company likely to lose their best talent, but customers may be quick to abandon a company that has persistently ignored claims leveled against its key personnel.
If you’re reading this post you may be a counselor for, or leader in, a company. Too often, only the folks in HR have paid any attention to sexual harassment. The time has come for others —managers, executives, and even board members — to take responsibility for this issue, if the company really values its talent.
There are three things all leaders can do right now:
- Shout it from the mountain tops. A sexual harassment policy should not remain buried in a personnel manual on the intranet. It needs to be regularly distributed and publicly endorsed by the company’s board and management. Make sure everyone knows that you really mean it when you say that you have zero tolerance for harassing behavior, no matter how important an employee might be in the company. Consider the distribution list as well. Do you distribute the policy to employees, independent contractors, affiliates, and customers alike?
- Recognize that HR shouldn’t handle every matter. Most of the time, the human resources department will be the appropriate department for handling complaints of harassment. However, if an employee with authority over or in the HR department, or an outside entity, is accused of sexual harassment, the matter may need to be referred to the General Counsel, a board committee, or an outside law firm.
- Look out for #MeToo. Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, you may have noticed that women and men have taken to social media to reveal past experiences of sexual harassment — oftentimes years after the incident — using the hashtag #MeToo. We are not suggesting that employers investigate every use of #MeToo, many of which could involve incidents which due to passage of time and change of circumstances may be very difficult to investigate. However, recent news stories have taught us that too many company leaders have ignored inappropriate behaviors that have been obvious to everyone else in the workplace and which were the subject of common knowledge and discussion. Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t ignore rumors. They may be cries for help that, if heeded, could save you big trouble down the road.