HR Headaches: Harassment, it never seems to end

Anyone thinking that sexual harassment issues might be behind us recently had their hopes dashed again. With almost bookend symmetry, notable cases this fall include law enforcement agencies in both Missouri and Kansas, as well as incidents and allegations throughout the metro.

Regardless of whether these or other area cases prove valid, sexual harassment is a major workplace issue—and probably will always be. Yet regardless of human nature and individual weakness, it can be prevented at work and your liability reduced, even eliminated.

Before I get into details, let me emphasize that any workplace allegation involves a multi-layered range of issues and necessary management responses. Whether you are dealing with an accusation of bullying, racial intimidation, sexual harassment or anything of this nature, there are several steps you must do to ensure an environment that is both safe for your employees and minimizes your organization’s liability. These can generally be divided into two categories: what you should do before an allegation and what you do when one occurs.

First, management must consciously and visibly acknowledge the dangers and ensure the workplace clearly exhibits a zero-tolerance climate. This includes everything from acceptable clothing to water-cooler dialogue. This can be difficult and goes beyond memos, posters and other communications that should clearly communicate the company’s position. Management must also establish a professional atmosphere where even borderline jokes or clothing are not acceptable.

When this is questioned—and it probably will be—your answer is that this is work, not a social gathering. It isn’t easy. Employees are people, and gray areas will outnumber bright lines. Their fears and concerns relating to loved ones, health matters or other issues need to be accommodated. But sexuality should be minimized, even barred. This helps keep behavior like sexual harassment out of the workplace.

Since people always find ways to break any rule, the second step you must take involves dealing with allegations. And the most important thing to remember is this: regardless of what you think of an allegation, you must act, and act quickly.

That does not mean all allegations are true. On the contrary, it’s likely you will be confronted with honest mistakes, well-meaning misinterpretations and outright lies designed to “get someone in trouble.” But not taking action is simply not an option for any organization that hopes to avoid low morale, legal problems and potentially devastating government action.

Your response must occur quickly. Sexual harassment and other allegations are covered by state and federal laws that start a stopwatch the instant an allegation is made. In some cases, you must act within 72 hours to conduct a thorough investigation, meaning you must interview the alleged victim, alleged perpetrator and all potential witnesses.

Remember, your actions may come under review by courts or government agencies. Equally important, other workers will also judge your actions and the environment they help create in the workplace. Setting the right tone can help reduce your problems later, in more ways than one.

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.