When companies consider the impact of sexual harassment they probably think of being legally defensible. Not bad thinking. But a better thought is — why not prevent the problems of sexual harassment in the first place?
A true story
Two partners in a large consulting firm, Frank and Jessica, considered themselves friends and were notorious for teasing each other in the office. In one incident Jessica put up a picture of a bodybuilder flexing his muscles and pasted a photo of Frank’s head on it. Frank responded by putting up a picture of a girl in a bikini posing by a car and pasted her head on the picture.
Months later Jessica left the firm and did not like the way her separation was handled. The firm was notified that Jessica was going to bring charges of sexual harassment. The basis of this threat? Frank putting her photo on the bikini-clad girl. The Managing Partner and his Executive Committee knew about the incident and did not feel that what had happened was sexual harassment. On the other hand if Jessica continued to press the issue legal fees would be incurred, people would gossip and it might reflect badly on the firm, etc. The decision was made to settle the issue by paying her one tenth of her annual salary: not a huge number but not small either.
A few weeks later at a company party one of the employees complained that Frank had told her a very crude sexually joke. Frank protested that he seldom told off-color stories to female staff and that this was the first such complaint in his years with the firm. On the other hand he admitted that he had been somewhat inebriated and did not remember what did transpire. The other partners were upset; after all this was the second instance of harassment (having forgotten that they originally felt that the first complaint was invalid.) Frank was ordered to get some sort of treatment for his problem.
Frank was publicly embarrassed and label as a “harasser.” The firm spent money it did not have to spend. And there were bad feelings in the office. Our clients who have “won” lawsuits almost always say that while it was the best outcome of a bad situation it was still a bad situation. Even more to the point legal claims can be a problem even if no one ever goes to court. And legality aside, sexual harassment makes people uncomfortable – even if the harassment stories are distortions of the truth. Most people don’t investigate every rumor they hear so there is usually a lingering feeling that something is off.
What can you do to avoid sexual harassment problems?
Don’t be silly but do be circumspect – Some workshops and seminars will leave participants thinking that if a man looks at a woman it constitutes sexual harassment. That is not the case. But consider what was happening at Frank’s firm prior to any allegations: people commonly and openly emailed each other jokes involving pictures of scantily clad women; and, at one birthday party Jessica had given Frank a very pornographic magazine – all in the sense of joking – and reportedly everyone laughed at how witty she was.
But some people are offended by that level of joking. Of course some people are always easily offended. But why take a chance? Work doesn’t have to be staid and stifling but it can operate well without even the mildest of pornography– and that goes for texting too. Use the wife/mother/daughter/female client rule of thumb – would you want someone showing this group these “jokes?”
Be aware of organization rank – Of course people fraternize with people who are lower on the organizational hierarchy. But that disparity in rank can be a problem. Jessica and Frank were both partners – but she said Frank was more senior in tenure and reputation and was therefore in some sense her organizational superior.
Watch company parties – The office Christmas party is so sacred to some firms that it will always be a part of their culture. And for some folks that party is no doubt fun and a chance to get to know their coworkers better. Be aware that some people do not enjoy office social events yet feel pressured to attend and, as a result, are sometimes hypersensitive. Combine that hypersensitivity with a tendency to lower your guard at social events—sometimes even saying or doing inappropriate things—and you have the perfect storm for problems of this kind.
Watch drinking – Some people enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol and behave well; but, as most of us can attest, some people get inebriated and do—or say—inappropriate things. Did Frank drunkenly ask something he should not have? Maybe. Did the offended person drunkenly imagine something was said that was not. Maybe. Would the problem have been averted if there had been no drinking? Quite possibly.
Get consultation on the front end – Your attorney is there to defend you if suit is brought; but, he or she can also help you avoid legal problems. Legality aside, there are psychological consequences of harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination and other issues. Get professional consultation in a preventative manner and save yourself time, money and stress.
Written by: Workplace Psychology Expert Witness No. 149