A friend serves on the board of a local nonprofit organization. She is one of only three women on the nine-member board.
As the nation is gripped in the throes of unfolding sexual assault and harassment accusations, the board’s chairman opened a recent meeting by jokingly admonishing the “guys” not to touch or say anything “wrong” to the women on the board.
The men laughed. The women scowled in disbelief. A few days later, my friend asked me what she should say the next time it happens. She is convinced there will be a next time.
I told her to tell her fellow board members to knock off the joking. Remind them of their fiduciary, moral and legal responsibilities. Whatever they think about accusers and their accusations, the law and a lot of court decisions are clear. They must take workplace sexual harassment seriously.
The consequences of dismissing sexual harassment accusations or demonstrating disdain for enforcing state and federal sexual harassment laws can be costly to them personally and to the organization they direct.
All it would take is for the chairman’s “little joke” to go viral. Public embarrassment and legal jeopardy would result. The joke and fallout could spread like wildfire on any number of social media platforms.
Now is the time for business owners, directors, supervisors and employees to take workplace sexual harassment seriously. No joking around. No hoping accusations and accusers will just go away.
While Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination on the basis of sex, it does not explicitly address sexual harassment. It took years of high-profile accounts, including those documented in Catharine MacKinnon’s 1979 book, “Sexual Harassment of Working Women,” to result in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission developing guidelines for employers to protect workers against harassment.
But the guidelines have not ended workplace harassment. Courts often find companies are not liable for incidents as long they have policies in place banning such behavior and procedures for victims to complain.
But the matter is long from being settled and California leads the nation in passing laws extending protection to workers.
Beginning in 2005, California required all supervisors at companies with more than 50 employees to complete sexual harassment training every two years. Last fall, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 396 that, beginning in 2018, expands the training to include harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.
Human resources consulting companies, such as P.A.S. Associates in Bakersfield, as well as many law firms, offer this required training for companies.
But the training and the protection it is supposed to provide to workers are only as good as the commitment of business owners, managers, supervisors and, yes, boards of directors. Everyone in an organization’s workforce must know that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and the consequences of engaging in the behavior.
A written policy, complaint procedures and mandated training are not enough to protect employees from workplace sexual harassment and companies from legal jeopardy in this highly charged, accusatory environment.
What more should employers do?
• Establish training goals. The plan cannot be to just minimize the company’s liability. It must be to protect employees.
• Evaluate the workplace culture. Involve employees in an assessment of the company’s workplace culture. Is it a “locker room,” where there is a “no holds barred” attitude about language or behavior? Or is it a professional, productive environment, where all employees are respected and treated fairly?
• Create a complaint procedure that protects both the accuser and the accused. This should be a written procedure defining how employees can safely report problems and expect to receive solutions.
• Walk the talk. Sexual harassment policies must apply from the top down to all employees in the workplace.
• Demonstrate the company’s commitment to preventing sexual harassment. When problems are identified, step in quickly to protect employees.
Karen Bonanno is president of the Bakersfield-based human resources consulting firm P.A.S. Associates and P.A.S. Investigations. The next sexual harassment training is Tuesday, April 10. Register at www.PASassociates.com.