The mere mention of "sexual harassment" typically prompts sniggers, but in the workplace it's no joke. Harassment continues to be a widespread problem in this country, particularly in industries dominated by a single gender. In fiscal year 2004 alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 13,136 complaints of sexual harassment, according to the agency's Web site. And the penalties can be stiff. In fiscal year 2003, the EEOC recovered $37.1 million in monetary benefits for plaintiffs (not including money awarded through litigation).
Not everyone's aware of it, but sexual harassment isn't limited to unwelcome sexual advances. According to the EEOC's definition, verbal conduct of a sexual nature also constitutes sexual harassment "when submission to or rejection of 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." For example, you may have read about the lawsuit filed last year by a former assistant to the writers for a popular TV show charging that the writers' allegedly unending conversations about sex and sexual escapades created an offensive work environment.
The risk of litigation aside, failure to crack down on harassment has another downside: it prevents employees from working to the best of their ability. Nothing divides an office faster than charges of misconduct. And nothing is more likely to distract everyone from the tasks at hand.
Nonetheless, managers often hesitate to discipline employees whose conduct threatens to cross the line. Maybe they don't want to be seen as a stick in the mud. Or maybe they genuinely consider it to be no big deal. But that's exactly the kind of thinking that can land a company in court. It's infinitely preferable (not to mention cheaper) to establish policies to discourage bad behavior than to defend yourself against a lawsuit. Here are some steps you can take to help keep your workplace harassment-free:
1. Establish a zero tolerance policy. Let everyone know what behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and let them know that you mean it. Don't announce the rules with a wink. This is serious business.
2. Encourage an atmosphere of camaraderie. Pull out your notes from that team-building seminar you attended and start putting those concepts to work. Encourage employees to view their co-workers as team members (not "that gal" on the third floor) and emphasize the need to work together as a cohesive unit.
3. Ban S. R. P. from the workplace. Sex, religion and politics have no place in workplace conversation. You're not depriving anyone of his/her freedom of speech. You're simply providing guidance as to what topics of conversation are appropriate within your business's walls.
4. Clean up the bulletin boards. Check bulletin boards regularly for objectionable cartoons or for calendars with potentially offensive illustrations. Monitor jokes being sent via the company e-mail system.
5. Dismantle the "old boys' network." The days of the homogeneous work force are over. Sooner or later you'll need to start hiring from a bigger demographic pool. As we've noted in past columns, talent is in short supply these days. Rejecting a perfectly good worker because of a factor like gender is not only short-sighted, it's illegal. It takes a little work, but in the end, establishing policies to discourage bad behavior is just good management. An employee who feels ostracized from his/her fellow employees or considers himself/herself to be harassed (whether it's sexual harassment or not) cannot perform at peak levels. If you allow the situation to continue, you won't be getting all you're paying for from this person. And that's no joke!