Steps for Dealing with Improper Sexual Behaviors in the Workplace

Dealing with improper sexual behaviors at work is something no one should have to worry about. All too often, however, employees and employers are forced to do so. In some cases, bad actors are managers or even company owners – a situation that makes an effective response to workplace sexual behavior difficult for all concerned. In others, sexually harassing or otherwise improper sexual behaviors in the workplace comes, but victims don’t complain because they are not confident that their concerns will be dealt with properly. In either of these situations, things can go from bad to worse for employee and employer alike in a very short period of time.

As the #metoo movement takes hold, it’s clear that the status quo in the sexual harassment in the workplace arena can no longer be tolerated. Employees are feeling empowered to complain when events occur, and employers must take action. Those who don’t, risk potentially serious financial and other business-related peril. To avoid those pitfalls and, more importantly, to protect employees against unwanted sexual conduct in the workplace that is both unfair to them and damaging to business productivity, employers should take the following steps:

  •  If you haven’t already, get management out onto work floors to talk to employees about their work environments. This does not mean questioning them about sexual harassment in the workplace. It does mean communicating about issues at work generally and observing how workers interact with each other. From there, steps to address problems or improve the workplace can be taken if needed.
  • Review anti-harassment policies, update them if required, and distribute them to employees. It may be better not to do this electronically. Massachusetts law requires the distribution of a sexual harassment policy annually, and doing so with a note to employees about the company’s commitment to ensuring a harassment-free workplace may go a long way toward what should be every employer’s ultimate goal: getting employees to believe they can come to management with problems rather than going to a lawyer to investigate their legal options. The commitment this process represents needs to be frequently reinforced if it is to have the desired effect.
  • Maintain an open-door policy to questions or complaints about improper sexual behaviors in the workplace. Be sure all managers know to be on the lookout for sexual issues and how to address any improper sexual behaviors they observe or learn about from employees. This will require training on some level. In all companies, at least one person should be designated to oversee harassment or other behavior-related complaints. The designee needs to understand when issues can be handled internally and when legal or other consultations are required.

Vigilance on Sexual Behaviors is an Essential Tool for Employers

If there’s one thing we’re learning as claims of sexual impropriety continue to grab headlines in workplaces across the country, it’s that employers often don’t effectively address sexual harassment issues until it’s too late. There’s never been much doubt that mistakes in this arena can cost a lot of money. Enter the needs for effective policies surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace and thorough training of managers. How, after all, can employers prevent damaging sexual harassment allegations if their key employees don’t know the signs of trouble and how to deal with them?

One of the big causes of sexual harassment problems in the workplace is a failure to understand that victims of sexual harassment often don’t want to complain and, when they do, frequently give only limited information. There are a variety of reasons for this ranging from fear of retaliation to a hope that bad behaviors will end on their own to a desire to get along with co-workers. When employers don’t realize this, they tend to overlook issues that might be portrayed as less significant than they really are and miss opportunities to resolve sexual harassment before it becomes a costly lawsuit. To avoid that error, employers need to institute zero tolerance policies for sexual behaviors at work and, when even a hint of it comes to their attention, investigate quickly. You never know what you might find.

In fact, workplace investigations of sexual harassment often uncover behaviors that were not explicitly raised by an initial complaint. On appropriate questioning, employees normally expand on how they feel and what they experienced. An investigation might reveal that behaviors are long-standing and practiced by a broader number of employees who are not aware of the dangers that sexual talk or acts present to their employers, even when those behaviors are ‘consensual’ or ‘don’t bother’ other employees. In many cases, sexual joking, e.g., is common at work, yet almost all employees are hesitant to complain to employers even when they are bothered by it. Almost all also have breaking points.

Employers are thus well advised to be sure they understand what goes on in their workplaces. All should review and ensure their sexual harassment policies are strong; make sure all employees get copies of the policy at least once a year; post notices regarding sexual harassment and its remedies; and train all managers, at least, about the basics of sexual harassment and how to spot its signs before things get out of control. Doing all this is not only prudent, it’s almost essential in light of recent sexual harassment stories and their impacts on victims’ understanding both that they are not alone and that protection is available for those who feel compelled to complain.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Recent Headlines about Sexual Harassment at Work is a Call to Action for Massachusetts Employers

image credit: pixabay

image credit: pixabay

The recent accusations of sexual harassment by powerful men against the women – and sometimes men – who work around them is suddenly shining a bright light on the issue. Shocking as some of the claims may be, the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem in Massachusetts is no surprise. For employers, the central message from media reports about Harvey Weinstein and others is patent. Pay attention to what’s going in your board rooms, mail rooms, and everywhere in between lest you face the embarrassment and expense that sexual harassment claims deliver.

Indeed, there is no shortage of sexual harassment claims in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth has long made employers responsible for rooting out sexual behaviors at work and addressing them before they become sexual harassment. All employers of six or more must have a sexual harassment in the workplace policy that is distributed annually to their employees. The model policy includes a discussion of sexual behaviors, encouragement of internal complaints, a promise to investigate, and contact information for filing state and federal complaints. Massachusetts employers are automatically on the financial hook for sexual harassment perpetrated by managers and for behaviors by others if they don’t quickly and reasonably address them. Needless to say, the cost of even a single sexual harassment claim can be extreme. In addition to paying their own lawyers, employers face the prospect of large damages awards and orders they pay the legal fees of the employees who sue them for sexual harassment

There are several steps employers should take to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace issues. The first step is to set a workplace tone that does not tolerate sexual or other inappropriate behaviors. Employers can do this through strong policies, delivered through comprehensive employment manuals that managers can get behind in visible ways. Policies should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to assure compliance with new laws. Managers, at least, should be trained about sexual harassment in the workplace and instructed that setting a positive example and addressing inappropriate behaviors when they occur is a critical part of their jobs. Staff should be encouraged to bring issues of concern to management’s attention, and those concerns must be addressed promptly.