HR Headaches: How to prevent workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a major workplace issue. It continues to exist; it continues to be litigated; and businesses continue to pay fines.

We are all sexual beings. Sexuality is practically everywhere in our culture. It’s in literature, movies, songs—heck, it’s even in commercials for hamburgers and soap.

How can we prevent sexual harassment in the workplace? It starts with trying to prevent sexuality from creeping into the workplace culture. The organizational climate, or the culture of the organization, is in the control of those at the very top of the organization.

The bad news is that culture eats strategy for lunch. What I’m suggesting is that there is a strategy devised and installed, and then those at the very top must insist that this strategy becomes a part of the culture of the organization.

Senior management needs to communicate that when you come into work, you are all business. Let’s start with wardrobe: the clothes that you choose to wear to work must communicate professionalism. No other message should be acceptable. Most of all, the clothes should not communicate sexuality. You are not going out on a date; you’re going to work and everything about work should be focused on productivity and performance.

Let’s continue with demeanor: the structure of formal workplace meetings and even informal conversations should be about performance and productivity. Any reference to sexuality should be minimized or avoided. There should be zero tolerance for private conversations between people at work as they relate to jokes and joking. You know the trouble with clean jokes? They’re not funny! Sooner or later, the subject matter will turn to sexuality, racism or some sort of “judgmental-ism.” The trouble is that people let their hair down, lose their focus or just take a mental vacation, and in no time at all, the situation can degenerate.

Senior executives and, perhaps even more importantly, mid-management, must structure their interaction so as to communicate: This place is all business.

However, remember that any strength taken to an extreme will become a weakness. The strength of establishing your workplace as an all-business environment can be undermined as well. Caution must be taken to allow for and accommodate individual employee’s personal needs to creep into the workplace. Every employee has overriding fears and concerns relating to their loved ones, relating to their health matters, etc. All of these can be accommodated.

It’s the matters relating to sexuality that must be combated in the workplace. It must be part of the culture that sexuality be minimized and consciously barred. If all levels of management adjusted the bar to include these measures, sexual harassment could be eliminated. If it is inappropriate to bring sexuality into the workplace, then gross behavior like sexual harassment won’t have any chance of obtaining a foothold.

Steve Cohen is president/partner of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc., and HR Solutions: On-Call. He has more than 35 years of specialized experience solving HR problems in companies of all sizes. He recently wrote “Mess Management: Lessons from a Corporate Hit Man.” He’ll be providing insight on HR topics every month exclusively for KCBCentral.