Ounce of prevention: Keeping sexual harassment out of the workplace

Preventing harassmentThe “Silence Breakers,” as Time magazine dubbed them in its 2017 Person of the Year issue, have created a climate in which people who have experienced sexual harassment feel empowered to speak out about their situation. Their stories shed needed light on the prevalence of the problem and offer hope for justice.

As victims will attest, however, much of this retribution stings of too little too late. The national conversation on sexual harassment must include strategies for creating workplaces in which such actions never occur.

In alignment with this “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” mentality, consider these ideas experts support as to how managers can build better environments:

Exhibit zero tolerance for bullying

“If you want to prevent sexual harassment, take steps against bullying of any kind. Sexual harassment is a form of bullying that men have tolerated because it serves to maintain the traditional pecking order, with men getting the high-paying and prestigious jobs and women getting the low-paying, low-prestige jobs. However, sexual harassment and other forms of bullying create an atmosphere that is bad for your bottom line, even if you don’t have to deal with lawsuits. Bullies undermine productivity and tend to chase away your most promising and most productive employees. By taking steps against bullying of any kind, you make it clear that you care about the well-being of all employees, because men can also be targeted by bullies. Make it clear that you expect people to come to work to work, not to play dominance games.”

Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health

Take the lead

“Preventing sexual harassment begins at the top. Employees take cues from their leaders, so if leaders do not condone inappropriate remarks, no matter how small, the behaviors will ‘trickle down’ to the employees. For example, if a leader overhears an employee talking about someone else’s physical appearance, he/she has the duty to say, ‘No, we don’t do that here. Please stop.’ Ignoring casual remarks can give employees permission to push the envelope, so to speak.”

Joe Pope, principal consultant, Highpath Solutions LLC

Put your philosophy into writing for convenient, consistent reference

“Employment handbooks that employees receive should contain a section on the company’s anti-discrimination and harassment policies, as well as contain detailed and clear instructions on how to report harassment. All employees should be required to acknowledge in writing that they have received and understand the policies that are in place.”

Jessica Childress, managing attorney of the Childress Firm PLLC

Keep teaching everyone about sexual harassment

“It is better to have a shorter training once a year than a massive training seminar every decade. A 30-minute refresher will do wonders and can address specific issues. I always tell my clients that any harassment complaints that are brought up as a result of training should be viewed as a gift rather than a burden. It is much easier to handle those than handling a lawsuit.”

David Miklas, labor and employment lawyer

Should workplaces be alcohol-free?

The best laid plans of mice and HR directors often go awry when alcohol gets introduced into the equation. While we’d all like to believe colleagues will act responsibly, drinking can lower inhibitions and lead to inappropriate behavior. Thus, many organizations are rethinking whether celebratory drinks after completing a major deadline or an open bar at a company party are worth the risk.

For those firms that do opt to include alcohol, Mark Kluger of Kluger Healey LLC suggests a pre-gathering memo (with the sexual harassment policy attached) reminding employees of expectations. Likewise, he notes that “HR and managers must stay sober and keep their eyes open for behavior that may lead to trouble. While that may be a lousy way for those employees to participate in the event, that’s why they get the big bucks.”

Other options include drink tickets to limit consumption and professional bartenders instructed to cut off anyone who can’t spell the company name.

“And invite spouses and significant others,” Kluger contends. “There is no better deterrent than their watchful eye.”