You’ve heard rumors of sexual harassment at your organization, but no one has made any complaints. Are you, as a company leader, under an obligation to investigate? And if they’re rumors, should you?
The short answer is yes.
Most victims of harassment don’t file reports. According to a range of studies, between 87 and 94% of employees who experience sexual harassment don’t come forward to file a formal complaint. Instead, sexual harassment incidents are reported by a third party, usually a work friend confided in by the victim, or someone who witnessed an incident firsthand.
If you hear a rumor, there may well be a problem at your company. Ignoring it can open your organization up to lawsuits, and even worse, allow a perpetrator to get away with victimizing one or more of your employees, perhaps even escalating from harassment to assault.
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What does sexual harassment have to do with security?
As a company leader, the safety of your employees is your top concern. Sexual harassment is a threat to the safety of your workers — even if they’re not being physically assaulted. Comments, unwanted physical contact, and innuendo, however plausibly deniable, can create a hostile environment for the victim.
Left unchecked, the harasser can also escalate, either harassing other victims at work, or intensifying their behavior into attempt at coercing sex from an employee in exchange for something at work, or in a worst-case scenario, assault.
For these reasons, if you’ve heard a rumor, it’s up to you to investigate. You need to be sure that your workforce is safe and secure.
Worried about false accusations? If you’re concerned about the safety of the accused person and don’t want to investigate for that reason, remember that it’s your duty as leadership to thoroughly look into allegations. If there’s nothing there, that’s fine – you did your due diligence. But if something is happening and you looked the other way, you’ve put your workforce at risk to protect an abusive employee and may be on the receiving end of one or more lawsuits.
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How to handle sexual harassment before it starts
It’s important to prepare for a sexual harassment incident before one even occurs. This means giving your employees the tools to report sexual harassment and other offenses safely and anonymously.
Use an anonymous hotline: Employees may not feel comfortable coming forward with a report or even a rumor, so setting up a hotline is an important step in letting people share details of suspected harassment anonymously. The hotline should be truly anonymous — ideally, it should connect to an outside organization specializing in sexual harassment, rather than to your Human Resources department. For one thing, you don’t want employees to worry that someone in HR might recognize their voices. For another, employees often want advice about handling sexual harassment — they may want to know what constitutes sexual harassment, how to report, or how to help a friend who may have rationalized what’s happening to them. Having experts on call can give them the skills they need to file a formal report.
Offer continuous training: Sexual harassment training and sensitivity training aren’t something you should offer once, or after an incident has occurred. Instead, training needs to happen often, so everyone has taken it more than once. Your employees may roll their eyes at repeated trainings, but don’t let that deter you from offering it. Training serves some practical purposes. First, it shows your staff that you’re committed to not allowing sexual harassment at work. Second, and even more importantly, training provides a specific definition for sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can be nebulous — often people don’t know exactly what it is. A special report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that when sexual harassment is specifically defined, victims are more likely to recognize and report it.
Build an inclusive diversity policy: Does your company have a diversity policy? If so, does that policy clearly and explicitly lay out the beliefs of your organization? A diversity policy may not seem like a strong step in combatting sexual harassment, but it’s important to have a document that clearly states that you are a diverse company that does not discriminate and does not tolerate harassment. A good diversity policy should be a living document: it should inform your company culture and should be regularly open to review and suggestions from all of your employees so that everyone in your company knows what’s included, and feels ownership of it.
You can’t always prevent harassment, but if you lay the groundwork now, you can make sure that your employees feel safe reporting inappropriate behavior, and you can also be prepared to investigate any sign of sexual harassment.
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