One might think that after laws have been written, suits have been filed, and major damages have been awarded that sexual harassment in the workplace would become a problem of the past.
Amazingly, that is not the case. The problem continues and I believe proactive education in the workplace may be the missing link. Every day, new people join the work force and it is a mistake to assume they understand the law and how it may impact them.
Beyond understanding the law, it is crucial for people to understand their rights and what they can do should they experience sexual harassment.
While it is not legally required to provide training to employees around this issue, it makes great sense in a very practical way. When people understand what sexual harassment looks like from the minor infraction to the major offense, they can identify it more quickly.
This means they can get help to stop something before it escalates and causes more widespread damage, both in terms of emotional well being of those involved and potential economic impact to the business.
What often happens is that managers are provided training so they are familiar with the law and the procedures within the organization if an incident happens.
Unfortunately, that’s as far as the training goes.
If the word doesn’t travel to the rest of the employees, there is a lack of understanding about what sexual harassment can look like and what policies and procedures are in place to deal with such situations.
Let’s look at an example of what might happen when there is a lack of training. A supervisor asks an employee out for a drink to “discuss business.”
The employee politely declines and doesn’t think much of it. A week later, the invitation is extended again and, again, the employee declines. This time the supervisor pushes a bit more.
Now the pattern is beginning and over the next several months, the supervisor becomes more aggressive by arranging closed-door meetings, late in the afternoon meetings that extend beyond the work day, work lunches that seem to consistently include flattering comments and questioning about personal matters and, more recently, some touching that is very uncomfortable for the employee.
The final straw comes when the supervisor tells the employee a great promotion opportunity is coming up and perhaps the two of them should meet for dinner to discuss strategizing the best way for the supervisor to help the employee successfully secure the promotion.
The employee is embarrassed and doesn’t know what to do. Work is becoming a dreaded place to go so a job hunt begins and the employee, a valued team member, resigns.
After confiding in a friend about the circumstances of the resignation, the employee is encouraged to seek legal advice because this sounds like a classic case of sexual harassment and something should be done. Fast forward several weeks and the company is notified it is being investigated for a sexual harassment complaint.
No matter what happens next, it will be difficult for everyone involved. It could have gone so differently. Imagine this: When the employee is hired, training is provided.
That training includes explaining the law, what it means in practical terms, what the policy of the company is and who someone should go to if something feels like sexual harassment.
It is crucial for companies to clearly state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in the work place and then have procedures for people to follow so they know what to do. There should be ample time for people to ask questions and discuss their concerns.
When the supervisor first asks the employee out for a drink, it is poor judgment but probably not sexual harassment. The second time is more critical because the first invitation was declined. Now a pattern is being established.
At that point, the employee recognizes a discomfort and knows it is acceptable to go to someone who can help and report the problem.
From that point forward, the employee is supported through a process that will investigate and resolve the issue in the most appropriate way.
The most successful resolution is that the supervisor realizes it is inappropriate to put an employee in such a delicate situation, receives additional training and coaching, sincerely apologizes, and the apology is accepted.
Everyone gets to continue working in the jobs they like and balance is restored.
I can’t say it enough — proactive training is the best thing managers can do for their employees in the area of sexual harassment.
Don’t wait for something to happen; it will be painful, costly, and gut wrenching.
Kathy Washatka is the former VP of Operations at WECU. She is the owner of The Washatka Group, a consulting and training company specializing in leadership development, planning, and customer service.