Sexual Harassment Policy in a Post-Weinstein World
There’s no getting around the media firestorm surrounding the increase in sexual harassment allegations. From Harvey Weinstein to the #MeToo movement in social media, it’s an issue that won’t go away quietly, nor should it. Many of the sexual harassment allegations being reported in the media are from many years past, suggesting that while the attention on the issue has risen, the number of incidences has long been high.
This subject gets political quickly, but today I want to share information about how the increased awareness of this issue might impact companies and organizations across all industries.
Public Perception Matters: I recently watched a webinar via the Texas Society of Association Executives hosted by two lawyers from the law firm OgleTree Deakins and learned several interesting distinctions. While sexual harassment is often used to describe a number of situations involving unwanted sexual advances of one person on another, legally speaking in Texas it only applies when this harassment occurs in the workplace (or at a work event) between two employees (colleagues, superiors or subordinates, and even job applicants). Therefore, many of the sexual harassment cases being discussed in the media are actually sexual assault cases because many of them are occurring with a company employee and a non-employee. If it’s considered sexual assault, it becomes a criminal case, not civil, meaning a company can’t be named in any lawsuit.
Despite this fact, you see many companies still firing accused employees and distancing themselves from the incident(s) because, clearly, not all press is good press. Companies have an image to uphold and what we’re seeing with this rise in harassment or assault allegations is that organizations are quick to take drastic measures to distance themselves from negative perceptions based on their moral culture.
Proactive vs. Reactive: In the past, company policies and HR departments often had harassment policies in place, and the only time the issue was addressed was when an incident was reported. Some companies also took an extra stepto train new employees on this policy, but that was the extent of things. Nowadays, being proactive instead of reactive after an incident is becoming common practice. According to a recent poll of 200 HR business leaders in the US, “79 percent of HR professionals said that sexual harassment prevention training will be considered a “high priority” or “essential” moving forward, up from 40 percent prior to the 2017 news coverage. It has become clear that simply responding to reports of harassment is not enough in the modern landscape. To safeguard their employees and public image, it’s important for companies to determine ways in which they can proactively prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Beyond training, another suggested tactic is to review other company policies, such as the social media policy or how much alcohol is served at company functions, and determine if they support a strong sexual harassment prevention initiative or if they hinder it.
Open Lines of Communication: According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 2016 study, “roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.” Most of the time this is due to fear of disbelief, inaction or even retaliation. And these fears are valid considering in 2003 the EEOC also reported that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. It’s important for companies to give employees ample opportunity and even encouragementto report an incident and feel they can do so without retaliation. Having a tip line, allowing anonymity, allowing an employee to go straight to HR with a report rather than going through management; all of these are ways in which an organization can provideemployees safe, effective avenues to report incidences of harassment.
Just as a company must evolve in the face of industry standard changes, legal changes, political changes, so too much they adapt in the face of social changes. This will look a little different for each industry and each company, but ignoring change in the landscape will likely come back to haunt you. As we Texas football lovers like to say, the best defense is a good offense.
About the Author: Lindsay Konlande currently serves as the Association Assistant for IREM Houston. Lindsay earned her Bachelor Degree in Communication from Texas A&M and has several years of experience in marketing, public relations and copywriting.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of IREM Houston. The author represented that she will not slander or defame any other person or organization. In the event of a breach of the above, the author shall defend, indemnify and hold IREM, its officers, directors, and employees harmless from any and all claims or causes of action.