October 2, 2007

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Paul Bieber

A few minutes ago I read a news-break update that Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks Basketball Club have been found guilty of sexual harassment in the offices.

Wait a minute you say, a professional basketball organization is involved with locker-room humor and men traveling around the country. Certainly this is acknowledged in this environment. The ‘wrong’ buzzer is squealing now in the background. Sexual harassment can and does happen everywhere in business, there are no places where it is acceptable under current law and custom.

An off-color joke can be considered harassment. Certainly any touching, and direct sexual overtures are way over the line. Hanging a pin-up calendar can be grounds enough for an employee to file a complaint.

Here’s what you do. As soon as possible, write a statement that should go in your employee manual stating that your company frowns on any sort of sexual harassment. Appoint a senior level person, or the owner, to receive all complaints regarding harassment. Have a meeting with the whole company explaining that you do not tolerate sexual harassment, and that anyone who feels they have been harassed, or made to feel uncomfortable, should speak with the appointed listener. This listener should immediately investigate any claim, report back to ownership, and then together, meet with and counsel the offending party, if you find there is one. Explain that one person did find the behavior offensive, and counsel the offender on what not to do in the future. Go back to the complainant and explain that you have indeed counseled all involved, and any further complaint will be taken more seriously.

If a second complaint comes in, you really have to talk with the offender. It doesn’t matter that they think it was innocent or cute. A letter of reprimand needs to go in the personnel file, and probably a suspension for a day or two, without pay, will get every one’s attention. A third valid complaint should cause dismissal.

If you just laugh this away, it will come back to bite you. No questions asked. Your company can be liable for big bucks, as well as you individually if you do not create effective action to stop the harassment.

I had an interesting case a couple of years back, where one male supervisor said something like ‘C’mon girls, let’s load this cart’. Of course, all the loaders were men, a few of Hispanic background, where calling a man a girl is extremely offensive. This employee filed a complaint with the state Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, there was an investigation, which said that our supervisor was indeed saying an offensive comment. To make a long story short, we paid a $5,000 fine, in this male-to-male conversation. The moral of this story is that you have to be careful, always, in what you say in the workplace.

Any questions? Drop me an e-mail at paulbaseball@msn.com and I can send you a one-page sexual harassment statement to go into your employee manual.