You would have had to be living under a rock to not have heard of all the sexual harassment allegations being brought forward these days. Celebrities, politicians and the like are all being publicly shamed for their crude and inappropriate behavior. And rightfully so. I always say that it is crazy that we are still talking about this in 2017 and yet here we are. Human behavior is both fascinating and tragic at the same time.
In the small business space I find that clients land in one of two camps. There are those who are overtly cautious about doing anything that could be deemed as harassing. And those who think the rules don’t apply to them. There are small business leaders who won’t talk to an employee of the opposite sex without someone else present and those who, because they are the owner of the business, think they are immune to the repercussions of bad behavior.
Bad behavior begets bad behavior. Often when I am dealing with a leader who thinks they are immune and we have a conversation around the inappropriateness of their actions, they often tell me they have gotten away with it for so long that it would be stupid for people to start complaining about it now.
I’m sure that’s what Harvey Weinstein thought.
Any lawyer will tell you that businesses of all sizes should offer preventing sexual harassment training to all employees with a special session for managers. For this reason, one of the first modules we roll out in our learning management system in 2018 will be on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. We recommend all employers require employees to take this training upon hire and on an annual basis.
But training, while necessary, is not enough, especially in small businesses.
For harassment of any kind to not be an issue in small businesses, top leadership must only demonstrate the type of behavior they want, only encourage the type of behavior they want and immediately hold accountable anyone who steps outside those boundaries.
It can come as a surprise to many leaders that their every action is being watched and critiqued. Employees are looking to see if word aligns with deed. They are looking to emulate the behavior they see in hopes that doing so may further their own ambitions. Employees may even mimic behavior they are not comfortable with if they think it may help them get ahead.
Leaders own the culture of the company. If there is a prevalent culture of harassing behavior, it is because the leaders have demonstrated and accepted that type of behavior all along. Which brings us to the next point.
A client of mine is a big believer is praising in public. He believes that if he continually praises employees in front of other employees for behaviors that he wants to encourage, they will keep doing it. It works pretty amazingly in his business. I have witnessed him encourage behaviors that other leaders would overlook or expect as common place. This method can be used to ensure that employees are treating each other with respect. Whenever those behaviors are witnessed, leaders can publicly encourage hopefully perpetuating that behavior.
It takes a mindful leader to seek out and reward this type of behavior, but the benefits of doing so can be reaped for years to come.
All businesses, especially in this day and age, must have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment. Overlooking inappropriate behavior or brushing it off as minor can be detrimental to small businesses. Not acting quickly taking appropriate action, even if that means terminating a high performer, only sets a precedence that can come back to haunt the business later.
It is this step that employers get wrong the most. Even if they say they do not tolerate harassing behavior, even if the leaders demonstrate the right type of behavior at all times, not taking action when it happens immediately negates all of that. It seems to be more difficult to hold tenured, high performing employees accountable or those for whom harassing behavior seems so completely out of character.
But zero tolerance has to mean zero tolerance regardless of who the person is.
Leaders must take all allegations of harassing behavior seriously. They must investigate appropriately seeking the help of their HR team or outside investigator to help. Finally, and likely most importantly, they must take action quickly when warranted.
In addition to training and the three areas listed above, small businesses should have a multi-option complaint procedure that gives employees several different ways to complain. Only giving employees one option means they will seek outside counsel should that one way be uncomfortable for them. Further, having multiple people involved in the investigation ensures that one person isn’t allowing their emotions to cloud their ability to see the truth. This doesn’t mean include people who have no business being a part of it as confidentiality is a concern, but including more than one person will help to ensure objectivity.
In 2016 the EEOC received approximately 27,000 charges of sexual harassment. Many charges occur because the employee didn’t feel they were heard at work, felt like the behavior was tolerated or felt they were retaliated against for speaking up. This likely means that many of these charges could have been avoided had the leadership in those companies done more of the things listed in this post.
One final thought. Leaders with the best intentions can overlook behavior because they think that things like that don’t happen in their organization. It is those very leaders who are often blindsided by a lawsuit. Or worse, leaders know the behavior is happening but they believe a lawsuit could never happen to them. Until it does.
The point is that, as the continued allegations continue to roll in about celebrities, politicians and big brand CEO’s, taking harassing behavior with anything but the utmost seriousness can be a small business killer. Uber may be able to name a new CEO, pay millions in settlement fees and promise they are turning things around and survive the storm, but most small businesses couldn’t.