4 Tips to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment

Young blonde woman holding up a #MeToo placquard in front of her face
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Over the past weeks, an avalanche of sexual harassment allegations has blanketed the country. Women–and men–feel a new confidence. They’re coming out in droves to denounce sexual harassment and other misconduct experienced in the workplace recently–and not so recently. The sheer number of (mostly) women telling their stories inspired one woman to create a Twitter hashtag, #MeToo. More than 1.7 million people in 85 countries have re-Tweeted the hashtag to speak out and name their harassers.

Ousters and Settlements Increase

Business Management Daily featured a PricewaterhouseCoopers study which revealed that over the past five years, 5.3 percent of chief executive officers have been forcibly removed due to lapses in ethics. That includes harassment. The 36 percent increase is “due in large part to increased public scrutiny and accountability of executives.”

In the United States alone, the study showed a 102 percent increase in CEO removals from the previous five years.

The settlements have been costly. In 2016, pre-Harvey Weinstein, harassment claims cost U.S. companies upwards of $482.1 million in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) settlements, which is an all-time high. (Note: Post-Harvey Weinstein, the EEOC sexual harassment section of its website experience a four-fold increase in visitors).

Corporate Vulnerabilities Show

With people feeling freer to report their alleged harassment, more people are expected to come forward with allegations in businesses of every size. Legitimate or not. That’s when social media, PR, and legal disasters can set in.

Now is the time to assess vulnerabilities. Brush off and tidy up (or create) complaint procedures. Develop a response plan before a response is needed. Start yearly, mandatory, in-person, interactive anti-harassment training for everyone, including board members. And make sure anyone who supervises anyone is trained on how to spot harassment, take complaints, conduct investigations, determine punishments and work with legal to finalize results.

The #MeToo movement is also bringing out more harassment victims. The EEOC, which received about 30,000 harassment complaints each year, estimates “only six percent to 13 percent of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint.” This makes educating supervisors on how to spot and stop harassment even more critical. Knowingly allowing harassment of any kind to go on creates a hostile work environment, which can force people to quit–and then sue.

Tips to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment

Before the first complaint comes in–and definitely after–take action to protect employees and the business from future allegations.

  1. Tweak Training. Anti-harassment training is usually seen as a human resources requirement aimed at limiting liability. Nothing more. People will attend, but not engage. Make clear in communications, modeling by leaders, as well as in training that the corporate culture is one of equality and hands-off respect. Dump online training in favor of face-to-face role-playing so attendees know what kind of behavior is tolerated–and not.
  2. Increase Reporting Avenues. Usually, the affected person is directed to HR or their supervisor or some third-party hotline. That’s not good enough, especially when the harassment is coming from the supervisor. Harassed employees are unlikely to file complaints if they have to go to their supervisor. Make every lead worker, supervisor, manager, director, vice president, the president, and even board members contact points. Ensure they are given yearly training on how to handle harassment complaints along with their usual anti-harassment training.
  3. Be Blunt with CEOs and Top Executives. Explain the complaint. In the case of executive harassers, discuss how to protect the business from an expensive lawsuit in light of the executive’s actions. Courts hold executives and management to a higher standard. Keep in mind, if what’s potentially going on is known and no one tried to put a stop to it, the business–and the business owner and anyone else in charge–is open to corporate and personal liability.
  4. Get Help if Needed. Not everyone has the time to train to do investigations, especially in small businesses. There are outside agencies to turn to, not the least of which would be the business’ legal counsel. These people are better able to perform investigations, and they can explain any legal risks as well as provide guidance on how to proceed. Business owners who do proceed alone should have legal counsel review steps taken in the investigation, any notes and evidence before making a disciplinary or termination decision.


4 Tips to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment