Small Business HR Advice
Workplace Sexual Harassment
Written by Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures
Small businesses often have a less formal working environment than their larger counterparts. Don't let this informality lead to sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is a serious issue for companies of all sizes.
Many small businesses may feel that they are not big enough to be subject to sexual harassment laws, but this could not be further from the truth.
Any company that operates, regardless of size, needs to be aware of sexual harassment and create a working environment that has zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
To begin with, you company should have a written sexual harassment policy in place. While this may seem overly formal, it's a step you should take to protect both your company and your employees. The policy should be thorough and outline your company's stance and measures to take place. Governmental websites typically have information on the laws and what you should include in your policy. Sample sexual harassment policies can be found on the web.
One of the nice things about small businesses is that there is often an informal feel in the office. Sometimes this may be in the form of casual dress or a unique desk layout. Instead of using forms and memos, employees can just talk to one another. While this can be great, it can also breed behavior that is too informal.
Don't let this happen to your company, one sexual harassment suit can devastate a small business and cripple their reputation.
Having a written policy in place is a good first step. It's not uncommon for the company to post the policy in the employee break room or somewhere else as a reference. The main advantage here is that employees know sexual harassment is unacceptable, and if there is a problem, the victim can feel comfortable going to senior management with the problem.
The best way to deal with sexual harassment is to prevent it from happening. In addition to a firm written policy, you should keep your eyes and ears open around the office. If you hear or see something that is inappropriate, you should step in immediately. While this doesn't mean you should be a Grinch or a party-pooper, it does mean that any comment or action that borderlines sexual harassment cannot be tolerated.
Lawsuits resulting from sexual harassment can easily put a small company out of business. If the company does survive, its reputation may be extremely damaged. Both of these situations are detrimental for the company. It's worth taking every measure possible to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. In addition, you have a victim and your company was responsible for the situation. I have never met a small business owner who would be comfortable with that fact.
An informal workplace can be a great thing and a fun part of running a small business. If this is part of your company culture, don't lose it, but make sure you're not creating an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated. Be proactive and let your employees know that while fun is always welcomed, comments or actions related to sex are not acceptable. If they do occur, make sure you take action, otherwise you are liable and there may be a victim in the future.
Andrew Goldman is an Isenberg School of Management MBA student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has extensive experience working with small businesses on a consulting basis.
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