Sexual Harassment Remains a Big Workplace Issue

One of the more interesting side stories that occurred during the recent election involved sexual harassment lawsuits and accusations at Fox News.

Few workplaces are free of some harassment, but a few easy steps by management can eliminate serious problems.

In case you missed it, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, sued her old boss, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. Even anchor Megyn Kelly got involved when she, too, reported having been harassed.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss such cases as “Hollywood news,” there are some notable elements here. First, a court reportedly awarded Carlson $20 million and, even if that doesn’t stand, it indicates the seriousness this issue holds before the law. Although courts may shift their stance on this, it’s not likely to happen quickly or go very far. Victimization that is proven in court is not likely to be overlooked. It’s too much a part of our civilization.

The case and some of the reaction it brought included useful insight. For example, I heard a few people say that, “People like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly can take care of themselves.” Apparently, their conclusion is that the courts should not trouble themselves with these types of issues.

I won’t bother to argue that—I’m not sure it’s even relevant. But one issue the courts clearly consider is how such actions impact those who may not be able to fend off harassment. That’s where we get into issues such as “hostile environment.” Basically, the courts are troubled by predatory behavior, particularly that which occurs steadily over a period of time. It is doubtful employers can ever look forward to the day when this isn’t true. The courts are saying, “It’s their workplace and they will be held accountable for the environment, including safety from physical and mental attack.”

This can definitely be unfair on occasion. No owner or manager can be everywhere, all of the time. But there are steps that can minimize, reduce and even eliminate the kind of behavior that can eventually bring a lawsuit against your organization. Owners, partners and managers can control the organizational climate—the office culture. And the place to start is at the top.

Obviously, this includes dealing with a lecherous board member or executive who thinks his or her standing should include some “perks.” That’s an obvious ethical and legal violation. If that is the case, my recommendation is to firmly ease them out the door. Not doing so is to invite bankruptcy. It’s that simple.

The bigger challenge may be establishing and maintaining an environment that is all business. In other words, senior management must communicate that when you come into work, you are there to work. That’s the single best way to avoid sexual harassment—or any type of harassment—and avoid lawsuits.

This starts with attire. Work clothes should communicate professionalism, not sexuality. You are not going out on a date; you’re going to work and everything about work should be focused on productivity and performance. This makes sense in many ways, but it serves to set a tone that focuses on business, not office liaisons.

Another important step involves formal workplace meetings and informal conversations. These discussions should be about performance and productivity. References to sexuality should be avoided. You should even avoid jokes and joking because sooner or later, the subject matter will turn to sexuality, racism or some sort of “judgmental-ism” that has no place at work. In no time, the situation can devolve to where someone is offended.

This may sound extreme and I agree it’s not easy. But it is achievable if senior executives and mid-management consistently communicate that the workplace is “about business.” If an employee consistently goes beyond those boundaries, take them aside or use a later opportunity to make that clear. Initially, stress that you simply want to maintain a professional environment and ask for their help.

Don’t confuse professionalism with an overly impersonal or cold environment. We do need to accommodate individual employee’s personal needs, especially concerns relating to loved ones, health matters or careers. All of these can and should be acknowledged and accommodated when possible. And no workplace should be devoid of some warmth. It’s a fine line, but simply thinking about why this important can help.

Ultimately, you want to make it clear that the workplace culture simply does not include sexuality. If all levels of management recognize this, sexual harassment can be eliminated. If it’s clearly inappropriate to bring sexuality into the workplace, then sexual harassment won’t have a chance. It’s not prudish, it’s just professional.

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