Protect Your Company and Yourself
One cannot read a newspaper, magazine, or electronic media without being exposed to information about the ever-expanding list of inappropriate and even egregious workplace behavior in the form of sexual harassment. In this heightened environment, there is the danger of jumping to hasty conclusions in response to claims of harassment.
This is not to say that harassment is not a pervasive problem in America’s workplaces – and beyond. While this situation must be changed, it must be addressed and changed appropriately or we may find ourselves jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
So, how to address this issue in the workplace? Firstly, organizations must have a clearly written and well communicated policy describing what harassment looks like, stating the company’s stance on harassing behaviors (zero tolerance), the ways in which employees can report such behaviors, as well as the employees’ responsibility to report such behavior, and how the organization will respond to such behavior in the form of a thorough investigation. If your organization does not have such a policy, do not delay in developing one. One caveat – if you are not going to follow the policy faithfully, it will do you no good.
Next, there must be effective, interactive training for both employees and managers (separate sessions) communicating the policy, reporting means, and responses. This is not a one-time event – it must be regularly delivered and well documented. It should also be communicated in your company’s Employee Handbook.
There must be a process for investigating claims of harassing behavior and it must be faithfully followed. This step may not be skipped, regardless of how egregious the complaint. In some cases, engaging an independent third party to conduct the investigation communicates that there will be an impartial decision regarding the outcome. While investigations should be conducted promptly, speed should not take precedence over a thorough and fair investigation. Thorough documentation of all interviews and actions is critical in the event the issue goes to court.
The culture in the organization is of paramount importance. Senior leadership must not only be committed to a harassment free workplace, but they must also model the best behavior. There must also be the willingness to follow the policy regardless of the position in the company of a harassing employee.
Harassment costs organizations millions of dollars – not just in settlement and legal fees, but in reputation, in the loss of excellent employees who chose to leave a toxic environment, and a demoralized workforce. Careers are irrevocably damaged. It’s a high cost to pay for bad behavior that has been tolerated for far too long.