Leadership strategies: Small businesses and sexual harassment
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Small businesses are not immune to sexual harassment problems. Most small businesses — from doctor's offices to car dealerships — are still predominantly owned by men, according to the Census Bureau. And in many towns, these business owners wield a lot of power and influence, which can make it extremely challenging for employees to speak out against harassment.
Yet the laws against harassment apply to any organization with 15 or more employees. What can these small businesses do to safeguard against a toxic culture? Here are three strategies being discussed at the national level that can be applied to businesses on Main Street.
Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs and business owners believe they operate outside of the scope of sexual harassment prevention laws. Many employers simply do not realize that the law applies to organizations with 15 or more employees.
Thus, the first step to take is to acknowledge the business is subject to the law. Critically, the second step is to get a grasp of what the law entails.
In short, the U.S. EEOC states: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."
Acts can be perpetrated by men or women, and complaints can be made by the victim or anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
Establish a standard
With a basic understanding of the scope of the law, owners should establish and communicate clear standards around acceptable behavior. This could be in a handbook or posted as a policy in the break room. It should be accompanied by verbal communication and email followup if practical.
Establishing and communicating the standard of acceptable behavior is only the beginning. To ensure it is effective, owners must enforce it consistently and create a clear, reasonable path for employees to complain.
For example, if it is a family business, the owner may want to make it clear that family members are held to the same standard as all employees. Further, owners could provide a toll-free hotline for employees to call so they are not in a situation where they are complaining to the owner's sister about another relative.
With the basics in place, owners can begin to look at proactive measures to create positive environments that encourage their employees to maintain the highest levels of productive behavior. This could include mentor programs or career path options that specifically support underrepresented employee groups.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, provides a thorough description of the issue and longer-term, proactive solutions to address it in her recent Facebook post.
The bottom line is, this year has been categorized by the wave of sexual harassment complaints against some well-known and powerful men. Even though it can be frustrating and exhausting when new stories continue to break, it is critical to understand that while it may seem to be limited to millionaires and government officials, small businesses are not immune to sexual harassment.
Take the time to establish positive standards to ensure a successful, supportive workplace.
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