Sexual harassment has been in the news a lot recently. Some of the top companies are experiencing the repercussions of lawsuits: Google, ESPN, Red Lion Hotels, and Lithia Motors to name a few. This has gotten the attention of CEOs and executives running small business. Most small businesses under 50 employees do not have an HR person on staff, therefore, they have no one for employees to come to if there was an allegation, except the top executives. It is the company’s obligation to create a welcoming culture, or an ‘open door’ type environment so employees feel safe and comfortable reporting to an executive.
My favorite saying in HR is “I don’t know what I don’t know.” If you’re a CEO of a small business and have a sexual harassment allegation, ignorance in not an excuse. It is a business’s responsibility to protect its employees from discrimination and harassment. Any business, large or small, can be held liable if nothing is done. In a small business, a harassment lawsuit, even if settled out of court, could ruin the business between financial obligations and the damage it can do to the company’s brand.
The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) states, “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment, or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on many factors including race, gender, and religion.
So the question still remains: How does a small business, with no HR person, handle sexual harassment or discrimination and the prevention of it?
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Some tips I’ve learned:
- Create a sexual harassment policy specifically stating the company does not tolerate it.
- Make sure this policy is in your Employee Handbook or Policies and Procedures Manual.
- Hold a training on the topic yearly, but also remind employees at company meetings throughout the year that the policy is in place. Also let them know who they can talk to if they feel there is an issue, and actually do something about any situation that is brought to your attention!
- Create a culture where employees feel comfortable coming to you (or any leader/executive) if they feel something has happened.
- Make sure employees know who to go to and how to report any incident of harassment.
When all else fails and you find an incident has happened, it’s always a good idea, as a small business, to consult an outside human resource professional or an employment attorney to conduct an investigation. By obtaining an outside person to investigate, you help to reduce any bias from internal relationships. If the issue ends up in a courtroom, the investigator will be the main witness.