If you're a small-business owner, recent high-profile sexual harassment allegations may have you a little worried. Some of the behavior you've heard about might remind you of someone you know. Or you may just feel a general sense of uncertainty. Where is the line between acceptable behavior and harassment—and how do you, the employer, draw it?
Sexual harassment is an issue you can't afford to ignore. It's prohibited by Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 if you have at least 15 employees. Similar state laws may apply even if you have fewer employees. And no matter how big or small your business is, an environment where harassment is tolerated leads to unhappy employees, higher turnover, and a less productive and satisfied workforce.
Here are five steps to creating a workplace where sexual harassment isn't tolerated.
1. Start with your mindset
As the business owner, you set the tone. If you truly commit to having a harassment-free workplace, your employees will follow your lead. If, on the other hand, you have a harassment policy but don't follow it, letting harassers off the hook and rolling your eyes at complaints, your employees will quickly get the message that you aren't serious. Harassers won't change their behavior, and their victims will continue to suffer in silence—or leave.
2. Educate yourself
To prevent harassment, it's important to understand what it is. Sexual harassment doesn't just mean groping or asking for sexual favors. It includes many other behaviors, such as:
- Inappropriate jokes, slogans on clothing, photos or drawings, or comments
- Unwanted touching of any type, including hugs, kisses, pats, and impairing someone's ability to move
- Emails and texts of a sexual nature
- Unwelcome flirting or repeatedly asking someone out after they've said they aren't interested
- Office parties with sexually suggestive themes or entertainment
- Retaliating against or penalizing an employee who refuses sexual advances
Harassment doesn't have to come from someone of the opposite sex. Harassers can be supervisors, co-workers, or even the delivery guy—basically anyone your employees have contact with in the workplace. Harassment claims can even be brought by co-workers who witness harassment and are affected by it. Take the time to learn about harassment, including the state and federal laws that apply to you.
3. Have a sexual harassment policy
Depending on your company's size and location, this may be a legal requirement. But even if it's not, a sexual harassment policy helps everyone in your company understand what sexual harassment is and how it will be dealt with.
Your policy should include a procedure for conducting sexual harassment investigations, and it should have restrictions on supervisors dating the employees that report to them.
It is a good idea to consult an employment lawyer to make sure your sexual harassment policy is complete and complies with all federal and state laws. Every employee should receive a copy.
4. Train your staff
Schedule training to go over your policy and explain acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Train supervisors and managers to respond appropriately if they witness harassment or if an employee makes a complaint. You may want to bring in an outside consultant to present this training, but it is important that you participate. This sends your employees a message that you take harassment seriously—and they should be too.
5. Follow through
You've got a policy and a procedure for complaints and investigations. Your job now is to do what you said you would. Be proactive if you hear off-color remarks or witness potentially harassing behavior. Take complaints seriously and investigate them promptly. If you find harassment, impose appropriate consequences on the harasser, and make sure you create a safe environment for the victim by not tolerating any form of retaliation.
Some experts say the key to combatting workplace harassment is to build a culture where people aren't afraid to speak up—where, in fact, they worry more about the consequences of not speaking up. If you commit yourself and lead by example, your workplace can be a safe and welcoming environment for all your employees.