How to Reduce and Handle Workplace Harassment
If you’ve spent any time online this past week, you’ve seen the “#metoo” movement unfold on social media in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and misconduct allegations. As I’ve listened to what was happening and read through the posts and comments, I’ve thought, “Awareness is really important. Often, we don’t know that there’s a problem until we bring awareness to it. But action is critical. We can’t just sit around and do nothing and expect things to change.”
As usual, I started thinking about this from a business perspective (hello, entrepreneurship!) and several questions started rolling through my mind, like…
- What can small businesses do to be proactive when it comes to harassment?
- How can I help them reduce instances of harassment in their own businesses?
- What advice could I give small business owners about how to handle harassment claims if they do happen?
So, I set out on a mission to answer these questions for you. The insights in this post apply to any business owner, in any industry, who plans on working with a team of employees, contractors, vendors, or even with clients.
First, let’s start by talking about what harassment is and what forms it can take, so you’ll know it when you see it the workplace.
What is Harassment?
Harassment is any unwelcome comment, gesture, joke, or behavior from a boss, coworker, vendor, or client based on race, color, sex (including gender identify and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, or parental status that mocks, demeans, puts down, ridicules or makes fun of another person.
Two Main Types of Harassment
Quid Pro Quo
The Latin phrase “quid pro quo” translates to “something for something.” In the workplace, quid pro quo harassment is when a boss, manager, or another authority figure promises or hints at giving an employee something (a job, promotion, raise, etc.) in return for a sexual favor. As in the case of Weinstein, quid pro quo harassment may even take the form of a threat. This is where an employer intimidates an employee by threatening to demote or fire them if they don’t perform the sexual favor.
Hostile Work Environment
Many people think a hostile work environment is anything that doesn’t go in their favor, such as a bad boss, not getting that promotion they wanted, or encountering a rude coworker. But that’s not quite the case. A true “hostile work environment” is caused by a boss or coworker whose actions, communication, or behavior make doing your job impossible.
Now that we have a clearer understanding of harassment and the two main types, let’s dive into today’s discussion for reducing and handling workplace harassment.
Reducing Workplace Harassment
There are many things you can do as a small business owner to reduce workplace harassment. I’m going to share three of my top tips below that will help you get started.
Have a Policy in Place Covering Harassment and Sexual Harassment
Before you start hiring employees, you’ll want to to have a no-tolerance harassment and sexual harassment policy in place. The policy should clearly spell out the different types of harassment that are unacceptable and allow no room for misunderstandings. It’s best to include this policy in your employee handbook and give every employee a copy. You can also include a “harassment clause” in your contract for vendors, venues, contractors, and clients. My good friend and attorney, Joey Vitale of Indie Law, has created a safe workplace policy that I adore! Join his free private Facebook group, Friends of Indie Law, to access this free clause for your business contracts.
Review the Policy with Every Team Member
I know it’s uncomfortable to talk about harassment and sexual harassment with employees (especially if they’re the opposite sex). But if you have a team of people, it’s one of your greatest responsibilities. Putting policies and processes in place to create a safe work environment isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. And having those conversations is critical. I’ve had my fair share of incredibly uncomfortable conversations about inappropriate workplace behaviors. I’ve even had to terminate several individuals for their behaviors and actions. It.is.not.fun.folks! Talking about what not to do is SO much easier than talking about what’s already been done.
Shut Down Inappropriate Comments and Behaviors Immediately
Have you ever found yourself in a situation and thought, “Yikes! Not my circus, not my monkeys!” Well, when it comes to addressing harassment in your small business – it’s definitely your circus and those are most certainly your monkeys. The best thing you can do when you encounter or learn of inappropriate comments or behaviors is to shut it down immediately. When we allow this type of behavior to take place in our businesses, we’re saying that it’s okay or acceptable. This can damage your relationship with your employees, vendors, contractors, and customers. Shut it down as quickly as you become aware of it.
If one of your employees brings a claim of harassment to your attention, you need to know how to handle it properly. Following are three tips to help you act in the best interest of your team.
Handling Workplace Harassment Claims
Take ALL Complaints Seriously
One of the biggest mistakes employers can make is not taking a complaint seriously. Earlier this year, I wrote about the Uber incident where a female engineer brought forth a complaint of sexual misconduct and it wasn’t taken seriously or addressed. The situation became so bad that the woman eventually left the company and wrote a tell-all blog post which brought several other similar complaints to the surface. Regardless of who’s bringing the issue to your attention, you absolutely must take the time to view the concern seriously and address the situation. You may lose a great employee or even your company’s reputation.
Act with Compassion + Seek to Understand
A grown man once sat across from me and said that he “couldn’t handle it on my own” and that he was “really upset.” After asking several questions, I learned that he had been on the receiving end of ongoing vulgar comments from a female coworker. He was embarrassed and afraid his wife would find out and think he was having an affair or enjoying the attention. This employee felt extremely uncomfortable and nervous about coming to work everyday to a job he used to love. He didn’t know how to handle it. Men can be impacted by harassment in the same as women. Maybe not as often, but it definitely happens. And when it does happen, they’re likely to not say anything at all because of social stigmas. So, if someone brings a complaint of harassment to your attention, take them seriously, act with compassion and seek to understand.
Act Immediately, But Investigate Thoroughly
Claims of harassment can’t wait until next week or even until tomorrow. When someone brings a complaint to your attention, it immediately becomes priority one in your business, meaning you need to address it right away. BUT, that doesn’t mean you should go straight to the person being accused of harassment and fire them. You want to understand the full picture from the individual bringing you the complaint by asking what happened and when. Ask if there were any witnesses and meet with them individually. Review employee files to see if anything like this has happened before. Get all the details of the situation that you can before approaching the accused. Then, be careful not to blame the individual being accused, but seek to understand the situation from their point of view.
Harassment situations can get really complicated and I don’t advise handling them on your own. You could open yourself and your business up to a lot of liability and legal action. Get guidance and advice from someone who knows how to handle these situations. When you work with SproutHR, you get access to over 12 years of experience in handling some of the most challenging employee situations. Your goal should be to address the situation quickly, accurately, and thoroughly. You owe it to your employees to do so!
Harassment can happen to anyone. At anytime. And for any reason.
As leaders, it’s our job to create a safe workplace for our teams. To encourage open and honest conversations with our employees. And to build their confidence and trust in us. When we do this, our teams will feel comfortable coming to us with concerns and confident in our ability to handle things properly.
Are you dealing with an employee situation and need some guidance? Click here to schedule your free call with SproutHR!