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Looking back at sexual misconduct

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

One afternoon in the mid-1990s, an employee came to my office and complained that a fellow employee was making sexual overtures to him.

I didn’t press for details. Instead, I suggested that my employee talk with his colleague about it and explain that he felt uncomfortable and wanted the behavior to stop. The employee agreed and returned to the open area where most of our staff worked.

The next thing I knew, shouting erupted. Sure enough, those two guys were having words at top volume.

“Both of you,” I said, “into my office right now.” I closed the door. I had each of them explain himself, with the first staffer accusing the other of “hitting on” him and the other calling the accusation ridiculous.

“Bottom line,” I told them, “I expect each of you to honor the other’s wishes and treat each other with dignity and respect.”

When the first employee came to me, I should have asked for examples of inappropriate behavior. I should have asked him to speak with his fellow employee privately (never imagining he would air his grievances in public), and I should have asked him to follow up with me.

On the same team, around the same time, an employee informed me that a woman who worked as an occasional contractor with us had been flirting heavily with one of our employees and that he was gently rebuffing her but that she seemed abusive.

At my first opportunity, I asked the employee to step out onto a private balcony and asked if the contractor had sexually harassed him. He said that actually, he and a fellow employee had been severely harassed by a female supervisor at their previous company, and that he considered this contractor’s behavior mild by comparison. He thanked me for my concern and said I needn’t do anything.

Although I followed my employee’s wishes, it left me with a nagging feeling.

I can’t remember whether I informed my supervisor or our office manager, who was the closest thing we had to an HR director.

A more effective remedy might have been to approach sexual misconduct as a liability. In hindsight, I could have worked with my supervisor and office manager on contract language and training to protect our employees from harassment.

Annette Licitra is a writer and editor with a progressive outlook on labor and business.

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