What You Should and Shouldn’t Do About Sexual Harassment

“Even doubtful accusations leave a stain behind them.” Thomas Fuller, M.D. (Gnomologia, 1732) 

As a consultant, I sometimes get to look at business problems from a variety of perspectives. I hear one story from the boss, another from the “victim,” another from the “culprit,” and still another from the personnel director.

This recently happened in a case of what is often called these days “sexual harassment.” The boss, who had all his information from the victim, was contemplating dismissing the culprit. The culprit thought he was being friendly. The victim, upon questioning, had her own version — more benign than the boss’s, darker than the culprit’s.

There was some suggestion that the victim had an ulterior motive. There was a moment when I thought the culprit was being purposely naive. The boss was torn between doing the politically correct, the legally prudent, and the smart business thing. It was a mess.

You can have a lot of interesting debates about sexual harassment, but one thing is certain: It’s illegal — a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

To protect your business, you need to have certain formal procedures in place. The basics amount to this: (1) You have to have a written policy against harassment. (2) All your employees must be given a copy of this policy when they are hired. (3) If an accusation is made, you have to respond to it in a reasonable and responsible way.

That seems simple enough, but the clarity ends there. If you’ve ever been involved in this kind of situation, you know how sticky it can sometimes get. I’ve seen a very good employee lose his job based on a completely frivolous charge by a totally compromised person — one who admitted to doing it “for the money.”

I don’t believe this kind of thing should be policed. I am in favor of people learning to stand up for themselves. But I do understand how it happens, and I think it’s reprehensible. I believe anyone who makes accusations “for the money” should be told off, beaten up, or knocked off, depending on the circumstances.

But I’m not king, and this isn’t my country. So how do you prevent this kind of behavior without turning your business into a little Brave New World?

One big thing: You can impose and enforce a general standard of courteous behavior.

You can make it clear, from your own general behavior and from your actions toward others, that no form of harassment is acceptable in your workplace. That means no bullying behavior, no insulting remarks, no yelling, no screaming, no degrading letters, no vulgar comments, no profanity, etc.

Go back to an older standard, when people treated one another with a bit of formality and respect. Let your people know that they are expected to treat each and every person with courtesy and consideration — and that the lack of such good behavior will not be tolerated.

Then put some muscle behind your message by punishing the first violation.

Harassment is a form of intimidation. Intimidation is especially bad for business, because it’s disruptive both immediately and over the long term; because it damages the productivity of at least two employees; and because it perpetuates the idea that work is about something other than working well and making a profit.

Get rid of sexual harassment by getting rid of harassment in all its ugly forms.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]