What do small business owners need to know about sexual harassment? In a word - everything. That's because sexual harassment is a hot button issue that can have potentially disastrous consequences for your business. To simply ignore it - or worse yet, to engage in it yourself - is the equivalent of committing entrepreneurial suicide.
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There is a saying that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In business, that means you have to take a hard line against sexual harassment before it occurs. Verbally informing your employees about your company's position on sexual harassment is a good start. But, ultimately a written sexual harassment policy is the most effective thing you can do to protect your employees and your business.
Many small businesses neglect to adopt written sexual harassment policies because they believe they are not large enough to require such a document. However, no business is immune from sexual harassment or from the ensuing litigation. That reason alone should convince you to create a written policy sooner, rather than later.
Sexual harassment policies vary from company to company. Still, effective sexual harassment policies have several things in common.
1. A commitment to zero tolerance
The best sexual harassment policies make it clear that under no circumstances will sexual harassment be tolerated in your work environment. To have teeth, however, this policy needs to be enforced every time there is a violation, even if it means losing a valuable employee.
A "zero tolerance" policy, by definition, means that your company will not tolerate sexual harassment under any circumstances. In other words, policy violations are met with a swift response the first time they occur. This may seem harsh, but if it's choice between zero tolerance and losing your company in a lawsuit, zero tolerance wins every time.
2. Definitions of sexual harassment
If you are going to implement a sexual harassment policy in your business, you need to be clear about what does and does not constitute harassment.
Although you will need to consult professionals about the specifics of your policy, many sexual harassment policies list the following among the activities that are unacceptable in the workplace:
- Unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances and suggestions
- Implications that a person must perform sexual acts in return for a job, a promotion, a raise, etc.
- Sexually explicit talk or language
- Overtly sexual physical contact
- Sexual relationships between a subordinate and a superior
3. Clearly defined reporting & response procedures
Defining sexual harassment is not enough. You will also need to define how employees can report incidents of sexual harassment when they occur. Even more, your policy needs to address how you to plan to respond to such incidents.
Your human resources department (if you have one) should communicate the reporting policy to your staff on a regular basis and be prepared to proactively respond. They might also establish relationships with outside agencies that specialize in handling sexual harassment incidents. This reinforces your credibility because it demonstrates that your company is not going to engage in internal "cover ups".