The wave of recent public attention to workplace sexual harassment and discrimination started by consuming a movie mogul, continued by swallowing a sitting senator, and has ultimately claimed the careers and reputations of TV personalities and corporate executives. These high-profile cases have had a highly visible impact on businesses of all types, as well as on the way Americans are inclined to view sexual harassment in the workplace.
That creates risks for employers of all types and sizes – as well as powerful new motivation to consider the issue of workplace harassment very seriously. To their credit, many companies have done precisely that, and are protecting their female employees by instituting appropriate guidelines and measures, or reinforcing those that they already have.
Naturally, there is considerable reluctance on the part of some companies to address the issue at all – particularly, those for whom sexual harassment has not yet become a significant operational or legal issue. The normal human inclination not to “stir things up” may lead many managers and leaders to ignore sexual harassment questions in hopes that as media attention subsides, the risk will too. In Trion’s view, that’s likely to be a very risky strategy.
Just because harassment isn’t currently a known issue at a given company doesn’t mean that it will stay that way – and chances are good that it won’t. The statistics tell the story: 27 percent of women say that they have been harassed in the workplace in the course of their careers, making it altogether likely that it has happened – and continues to happen – in your company as well.
In an environment where authorities, the media, and the civil justice system are all placing a renewed and highly visible emphasis on fighting back against workplace harassment, such a statistic should be sobering. The persistence of even low-level workplace harassment that is unknown to management places a company at significant risk, in terms of public image as well as criminal and civil liability, particularly if it does not have a robust, enforced harassment policy in place. A single complaint or lawsuit can cause plenty of problems on its own; should harassment prove to be endemic or persistent within an organization, the legal and monetary risk rises exponentially.
For companies, the safest course of action is to assume exists, and to be both proactive and aggressive in addressing it. That begins with the implementation of robust harassment policies and sound mechanisms for reporting and handling complaints. While a number of organizations and government agencies, including the Society for Human Resource Management, provide general guidance in formulating a viable harassment policy (and some even provide policy templates), a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to leave a company at least partially unprotected. State and local regulations and other distinctions likely will require a good deal of customization if a company is to adequately protect both its employees and itself.
Trion Solutions works closely with our clients to ensure that sound, effective anti-harassment policies are in place, and that appropriate training is provided to ensure that risks to companies and employees are minimized. We find too that implementation of sound standards provides a significant additional benefit: By reducing incidences of harassing behavior and by making potential harassment victims feel safer in the workplace, overall morale and productivity can improve significantly.
Recent events have shone a bright spotlight on the pervasive problem of harassment – but there is a clear pathway to its resolution. Getting in front of harassment before it becomes a significant issue is the surest way to safeguard your company from serious risks – and an opportunity businesses can’t afford to ignore.