The horrifying news that’s recently surfaced about sexual harassment and assault at Weinstein & Company is sadly all too familiar. This year, we saw other high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits filed within corporate America, and there are no doubt countless incidents that never made headlines. In fact, we hear all the time from women who don’t officially report sexual harassment.
We’ve published a lot of information to help women and victims of sexual harassment identify what to do if sexually harassed, but what about employers and companies? What is the role they should play in crafting policies and creating a culture to ensure that sexual harassment and assault are not tolerated in the first place?
- Have — and publish — your policy. If a company is silent on the issue of sexual harassment, or has no formal policy or procedure on sexual harassment and assault that is easily accessible and published for all employees, then it has some work to do. Not only is the company potentially subjecting itself to unnecessary legal risk, but it is also leaving employees in the dark without an important resource.
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy. This may translate into a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” rule or may be phrased differently, but essentially it means that employers clearly articulate that sexual harassment and assault are fireable offenses. Employers should not respond to these incidents lightly, and that needs to be understood by all via an appropriately severe policy.
- Management should articulate the policy. Gender equality and diversity — and the prerequisite of having a workplace that is supportive of women — by definition does not tolerate sexual harassment or assault. Therefore, management should not merely have a sexual harassment policy sitting within a policy handbook, but it should actually talk about it when relevant.
- An anti-retaliation policy. Retaliation against those who report sexual harassment is already illegal, but it should be explicitly part of the policy any company adopts, as well. Managers and HR should make victims of sexual harassment feel safe — especially since they most likely already feel they are taking a great professional and personal risk in reporting an incident in the first place.
- Remove mandatory employee arbitration clauses forbidding victims to file lawsuits for sexual assault, harassment and discrimination. Companies working as federal contractors for the U.S. government are already forbidden to have arbitration clauses in employee agreements; these clauses would forbid employees to file lawsuits against employers and instead submit to judgment doled out by a third-party arbiter. Although arbitration can be a cheaper and quicker way to resolve sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination cases, it can also enable the silencing of female victims as a by-product, allowing employers to sidestep the full extent of public consequences for harboring sexual offenders.
As is (thankfully) becoming increasingly clear, employers can no longer treat the sexual harassment of employees as an inconvenient reality to brush aside. Proactive measures aren’t simply a luxury — they’re a necessity, and something that companies may be judged harshly for not recognizing.