Sexual Harassment Is Everywhere. Small Businesses Can Be Uniquely Vulnerable.

Dec 11, 2017 | Jessica Ogilvie

All around us, men are toppling from their perches after being accused of sexual harassment or assault. These instances are abuses of power, and it’s (sadly) easy to see how such abuses could happen at large organizations (business and government) where money and power are king, and few at the top are held accountable.

But what about when it happens at a small business? In some ways, it’s even more difficult to deal with, because we smallies tend to pride ourselves on a staff that can feel more like a family, and a vibe that can feel like home. When those bonds of trust are broken, it can be hard to set things right again.

The good news is, there are some very tangible steps you can take towards preventing this. And even though you probably don’t want to think about it — or, more likely, you’re reading this and thinking “Well, I know my employees, and that would never happen here!” — we’ve got news for you; it’s much, much worse to stick your head in the sand than to prepare for something that doesn’t actually come to pass.

1) Get Yourself Some Policies and Procedures

You might think that having just eight or nine employees prevents you from having to worry about harassment or assault; you probably see your employees pretty regularly. Maybe you even socialize with them.

And if you do think that, you’re not alone; as many as 67 percent of small businesses don’t have sexual harassment policies or procedures in place, according to a recent Manta poll. The same survey found that 41 percent of small-business owners thought sexual harassment policies “unnecessary given my small number of employees,” and 11 percent found them to be “too PC for my company’s culture.”

But if you’re still laboring under this delusion, we entreat you to watch the video of Savannah Guthrie wondering how the Matt Lauer she knew could have acted the way he did, or of Sarah Silverman pondering the same about Louis CK. In other words, no matter how well you know (or think you know) your employees or coworkers, having a sexual harassment policy is vital.

2) Understand WHY You Need Those Policies

Okay, yes, you need them because it’s very dangerous not to have them. Manta cites a Dunkin’ Donut franchise owner who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $150,000, a funeral home that paid out $85,000, and a restaurant that owed $27,500. So yes, you will likely take a massive financial hit if you get sued.

But more importantly than that, it sets the tone for the all-important culture you want to cultivate at your workplace. For the very same reasons you think you don’t need to have these policies — you know everyone! You’re a family! — your employees do want them in place (you actually don’t know everyone that well, and also, family has each other’s backs). Putting policies in place, explaining them clearly to your employees and sticking to them strictly lets your staff know that you take the (potential) problem seriously, and that they are safe to report any incidents to you. And voila; you have created a safe working environment. Good job!

3) Know the Law

If your company has more than 15 employees, federal law protects those workers from sexual harassment and assault at work. If you have 15 employees or fewer, there still might be local or state laws requiring certain actions or policies at your company, so look up the specifics for your locality. If you don’t have policies in place and employees are protected by federal law, someone who has been been sexually harassed or assaulted can skip right over telling you and file a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the first step before filing a lawsuit.

Harassment is defined by the Department of Labor as either quid-pro-quo or hostile work environment. In a quid-pro-quo scenario, a worker is either punished for refusing someone’s advances or given preferential treatment for submitting to them. You’re liable if the incident had a direct effect on the employee through what’s called “tangible employment action;” in other words, if they were fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for refusing a higher-up’s advances. If tangible employment action didn’t result from the harassment, you’re still liable unless you can prove that you tried to stop it or prevent it in the first place.

In a hostile work environment, people are made to feel uncomfortable or discriminated against. You know the drill; John in accounting loves to tell stories about what happened in Vegas, to everyone’s discomfort. The Department of Labor also offers these examples of hostile behavior:

  • telling off-color jokes concerning race, sex, disability, or other protected bases
  • unnecessary touching
  • commenting on physical attributes
  • displaying sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures
  • using demeaning or inappropriate terms or epithets

The EEOC’s guidelines for small businesses and harassment policies can be found here. We suggest giving them a read. And remember — this is so your people can feel even more warm and fuzzy when they walk into the office; not less.