Sexual Harassment: 4 Critical Questions for Reviewing Your Policy

Wow.  That’s all I have to say: Wow.

I last posted here in September and, man, oh man, has there been some water under the bridge. Sexual harassment exploded onto the front pages. The Harvey Weinstein story (read Kristin’s post here) seemed to open the floodgates. Since then, harassment allegations (and in many cases, more than allegations) have brought to heel business leaders, politicians, entertainers, athletes, and more. We even have a hashtag (#MeToo).

We’ve posted several times on this topic already, and in fact, these separate scandals and the overarching movement are difficult to write about because we never know when the next shoe is going to drop. Basically, any article, post, or opinion on this topic risks being overtaken by the next headline. Is someone else going down? What did this person do? Is it worse than what’s come before? Does the latest scandal tell us something that the prior scandals didn’t?

I very much suspect that our readiness to credit these stories, to expect that more will come, and to speculate about what is around the corner is due to something many of us feel in our gut: We may have seen misbehavior where we work, we suspect it may have happened in our office, and we wonder if we have missed something.

The only definitive answer I can give you to those questions rattling around your head is that this issue is not going away. Just this week, the BBC reported that a group of approximately 300 actresses, writers, and directors, including Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Eva Longoria and Emma Stone, have raised approximately $13 million (toward a goal of $15 million) to provide legal support to harassment victims. According to The Beeb, “The money raised will be used to fund legal support for both female and male victims of sexual harassment at work,” and, “The project is aimed primarily at those who are unable to meet the payments to defend themselves, such as agricultural or factory workers, caretakers and waitresses.”

At this point, the best response for any employer is action; after all, if the light shines your way you don’t want to be frozen like a deer in the headlights. What actions do I suggest? Here are but a few:

  • Ask yourself when your company last took a look at its harassment policy. If it’s been awhile, dust it off and take a look. If you have an employee out there who needs to come forward, is it clear from the policy whom the employee needs to contact? Are you comfortable that the contact is prepared to handle a complaint appropriately?
  • How certain are you that everyone in the company is even aware of the harassment policy? If you have any doubts at all, there’s a simple fix: Send it to everyone. Again. Today.
  • Don’t shrug off risky behavior you see at any level of the organization. If you see unprofessional conduct, take it on. Never forget that relationships among people change quickly, so the jokes we tell today may not be as funny after we have a falling out with one of our colleagues.
  • Finally, if you are in a position of responsibility to spot, investigate, or respond to harassing behavior (and this extends to any manager, not just HR), make sure you mind your own “P”s and “Q”s. You may slip up and toe (or cross) the line from time to time, but recognize it and fix it. We often spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families, and no one is going to begrudge friendships among those with whom you share much in common. However, you are colleagues because you are there to do a job, that fact demands professional behavior, and professional behavior demands owning up to the times when you fall short.

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