Every day there are more allegations of sexual harassment in the news. Both men and women are voicing complaints about behavior that in the past was tolerated even though it was inappropriate, offensive and, in many cases, illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While most of the stories that make the headlines are about celebrities and large companies, small business owners need to make sure they are taking action to protect their employees, their company and themselves from similar allegations.
Lessons learned from #MeToo (social media movement to report and denounce sexual assault and harassment):
- All businesses need to clearly explain to employees what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior when interacting with co-workers, customers and vendors. This is usually done in an employee handbook and includes consequences (disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment) for failing to comply with these guidelines.
- The employee handbook should also clearly explain how to report a complaint about inappropriate behavior, how the complaint will be investigated and guarantee protection from retaliation. Having a written anti-harassment policy is the first line of defense for employers when allegations of sexual harassment result in legal action.
- Everyone in the company needs to be trained on the differences between harassment, discrimination and bullying – all of which have a negative impact on productivity, the company’s ability to hire and retain good employees and its’ community reputation.
- Business owners must lead by example. The owner’s behavior sets the tone for workplace culture and how employees behave on the job. Inappropriate comments, jokes or touching by the business owner may create an environment where that type of behavior is considered the “norm” – until someone makes a formal complaint.
- Business owners also need to address inappropriate behavior when it occurs. Failure to counsel an employee about inappropriate behavior may give the impression it is acceptable.
An HR professional can help you write policies and procedures, provide training and conduct investigations of allegations. (Note: anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies should also include many other protected characteristics in today’s business climate.)
An HR professional can also help you with all of your human resources needs, from hiring the right employees, running background checks, creating or updating employee handbooks, managing employee performance, staying legally compliant, automating employee records, and anything else you need to create an environment where employees can provide the services that you need to run your business.