Just Say No to Sexual Misbehavior in the Workplace: It’s Really Not That Difficult

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Harvey Weinstein didn’t invent predatory sexual behavior; he just took it to new and previously unimagined heights. It’s literally been around forever. And, here’s the thing: Behaving properly shouldn’t be that difficult. Sadly, for some, it is. So, how do you protect your company from being exposed to liability, embarrassment, and vilification?

Taking action involves four basic steps:

  • First, implement a workplace training program to address what I call “sexual misbehavior” (sexual harassment and sexual assault).
  • Second, institute a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual misbehavior, and publicize it.
  • Third, apply the policy fairly across the board—i.e., the CEO is subject to the same rules as the assembly line worker or customer service rep.
  • Fourth, have a system in place to deal with any complaints, and follow it consistently.

How do I know this will work? Well, for one, I’ve implemented this type of program on more than one occasion during my career. When I was VP of Legal Affairs at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (was it really 30 years ago?), we received a complaint alleging that a troupe leader was harassing a couple of young gymnasts who were performers in his act. In fewer than 48 hours, we thoroughly investigated the claim and sent him packing. We had a system. We followed it. We put an end to the problem quickly and decisively.

In the current climate, in which harassment claims keep escalating, we hear lots of talk about “if it’s true” and “innocent until proven guilty.” And, we also hear about “due process.” The problem with all of these comments is that those making them are conflating courts of law with companies. While the usual caveats about collective bargaining agreements and federal and state employment laws apply, most of the time, companies don’t need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of sexual misbehavior in order to act against them. Instead, they need to make sure that they follow their own internal guidelines. If their guidelines call for an investigation and a finding that it’s “more likely than not” that sexual misbehavior occurred, then that’s the standard that must be met. As long as the employees are all aware of the system that’s in place, they don’t have a legitimate complaint when the system is followed, regardless of the outcome.

With the initially small rockslide of sexual misbehavior allegations turning into an avalanche, it would behoove all companies to make certain their programs are rock solid. It’s not about trending with popular public opinion—it’s about business, as one misstep can lead to consumer boycotts and the death of a brand. Besides all that, it’s the “right thing to do.”

Don’t procrastinate. And don’t get caught with your pants down. So to speak.

 

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