If you happen to see anyone wearing a teal ribbon, it’s probably because they are observing Sexual Assault Awareness month (SAAM). First marked nationally in the United States on April 1, 2001, SAAM is a time that is set aside to educate people about sexual violence and how to prevent it. This important month has ironically coincided with a series of events that bring good cause to contemplate sexual harassment in the workplace.
Since February of this year, one of the largest transportation network companies in the world, Uber, has faced multiple accusations of systemic sexual harassment and gender discrimination against female employees. Just last week as well, in the wake of harassment scandals that led to the ouster of Roger Ailes as chairman of the Fox News Channel, details emerged of the fact that Fox News has paid millions to settle five separate sexual harassment lawsuits filed against one of its star hosts Bill O’Reilly. If sexual misconduct is a problem that can plague such large and notable companies, it’s worrying to imagine how many people could be suffering in silence under circumstances that have no whistleblowers or media exposure.
Every company has a responsibility to protect the well-being of its employees – especially those vulnerable to harassment. This isn’t just an ethical responsibility, it’s an economic one. Doing business without a comprehensive policy on how to address and resolve incidences of sexual harassment leaves an organization exposed to difficulties such as interpersonal conflict and legal prosecution. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome conduct that is based on gender. Sexual harassment becomes unlawful when victims are compelled to endure it as a condition of employment, or when it is prevalent enough to create an intimidating and hostile environment. When it comes to dealing with harassment, prevention is far better, and far easier, than cure. The following four principles offer a guideline on how to preventatively address sexual harassment in the workplace:
Create a Clear Sexual Harassment Policy
Consulting an attorney is the best way to draft a legally sound anti-harassment policy. Companies do have free reign however to go beyond this measure and craft rules that are specifically relevant to their unique personnel. The most important goals are to: define sexual harassment understandably, have management publicly endorse the company’s policy, and make this policy readily accessible to any and all employees that work for a company.
Regularly Train Employees and Management to Practice Established Policy
Drafting an anti-harassment policy is well and good, but all the rules in the world mean nothing if they aren’t intentionally applied. Companies should take deliberate and active steps to teach employees about how reprehensible harassment is, and encourage them to reject any participation in such behavior. The more training a company provides on the issue, the more instinctively a culture of respect and decency develops throughout an organization.
React to Incidents Swiftly and Decisively
In a perfect world, teaching people rules is all it would take to avoid having to deal with transgressions. Unfortunately however incidents of harassment may occur despite best efforts to avoid them. Should any employees end up carrying out harassment, management should demonstrate no hesitation enforcing either company or statutory regulations that punish said harassment. Companies should especially be diligent to document detailed records of harassment events considering that the frequency of harassment is a determinant of whether a hostile work environment exists.
Monitor Employee Behavior Actively
When it comes to employee behavior, effective prevention starts with simple observation. Management should be careful not to get caught off-guard regarding whether or not employee dynamics are inappropriate. Every company should have an open-door policy and channels that make it possible for any employee, at any level, to report and address isolated incidents of harassment before they multiply into problematic irreconcilable conflicts. Even something as simple as regular anonymous employee surveys can call attention to sensitive situations that require immediate attention.
A company can never be too attentive when it comes to protecting its employees from sexual harassment. When people can go about their work without fear or discomfort over encountering their peers, it becomes easier to focus on what’s important. It should be a fundamental right for every person to live and work in an environment of respect and decency. Striving to accomplish this isn’t an ideal, it’s a duty.