Sexual Harassment Hits New Lows

Beth Dean 12.05.17
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Over the past weeks, we’ve seen several people taken down by allegations of sexual harassment or assault. 

Men and women have stepped from behind the veil of shame and doubt and are loudly saying what we in HR have known for years: sexual harassment is real and must be taken seriously.

You may even see an uptick in harassment complaints at your workplace. While our HR team is ready for your calls and one-on-one troubleshooting, there are ways you can prepare your company now.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Culture is cultivated from the top down.

Your slick harassment handbook policy will go nowhere if it isn’t believed, preached, and heavily enforced by those at the very top levels of your company.

Taking a passive stance against harassment often indicates a bigger problem within the company’s culture. “Employers who have been passive about addressing unprofessional behavior at work have effectively established there aren’t consequences to bad behavior,” says Tracey Hixon, Nextep’s Corporate HR Director. “This creates significant liability for businesses.”

Those in senior or leadership positions have not only an ethical, but also a legal obligation to act swiftly against harassment. The Supreme Court found that managers and supervisors can be found vicariously liable if they know of harassment and allow it to continue.

It can happen to anyone.

As we’ve seen with recent cases, accusations can be complicated and even heartbreaking. Sometimes perpetrators are in positions of great power. Sometimes they’re so well-liked that no one can imagine them engaging in that kind of behavior.

Just as alleged harassers don’t always fit a certain profile, neither do those being harassed. Harassment can happen to people of any gender, any body type, any level of seniority. All complaints should be taken seriously.

Think it’s not that bad? Yes, it is.

That crass joke you just told your coworker, overheard by the person in the next cubicle who feels offended is harassment. The employee who exposes themselves to a nonconsenting coworker from across the room is engaging in harassment. Offenses don’t always have to include touching.

There’s also a tendency among some to keep the peace. They’ll laugh off an unwanted touch or advance, not wanting to make a scene, or worse, afraid to because the offender is in a position of power.

This issue means real dollars and cents.

Aside from the cultural and ethical problems, harassment can be financially devastating to a company. A sexual harassment claim that goes to court is easily a $100,000 expense, win or lose.

Even if the company survives the claim, there are still numerous soft costs in lost productivity, weakened employee retention, and potential retaliation claims. It pays to prevent harassment at your company as much as possible.

Prevention will help.

While some factors are admittedly out of your control, there are several preventative steps your company can take now to create a professional, harassment-free environment.

  • Hold regular harassment training. Nextep offers sexual harassment online training for employees and managers.
  • Make sure managers in particular are trained in how to identify harassment and how to handle complaints.
  • Review your handbook policy with your Nextep HR consultant to make sure it’s clearly written and includes procedures for making complaints. Employees should know in writing who they can go to and how the process will transpire.
  • Investigate any harassment claims right away, and secure the employee’s safety during the investigation.
  • Make it clear that your company does not tolerate any form of harassment. The employee must have trust that his or her complaint will be taken seriously.

For the skeptics:

Yes, sometimes people do make false accusations. And sometimes incidents can be genuine misunderstandings, easily rectified. Don’t let that lessen how seriously you take complaints.

The recent flood of accusations may indicate a witch hunt or twisted bid for attention among skeptics. Think of it instead as an issue that has been hidden in the shadows for far too long, now exposed in a harsh spotlight.  

The current news cycle may be giving people the courage to speak up, when they may have been too scared before. Worse, accusations that now are given legitimacy may have been ignored or downplayed before this issue became such a hot topic.

We have experience in helping companies get through tough situations, including harassment. Consider Nextep your first step if you need help getting through your own ordeal. We’re here to help.

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