Be Aware of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By: Melanie Berkowitz, Esq.

The 2011 Supreme Court ruling sent a message to businesses of all sizes, including small business owners. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes should be a reminder that it only takes one upset employee to bring a lawsuit — no class action needed.

For small businesses, workplace discrimination in the form of sexual harassment can be a particular problem.

This is often due to the close and often family-owned small business environment that makes them attractive places to work; such an environment can sometimes encourage unethical behavior.

And when a busy boss is in charge of hiring, human resources and most managerial decisions, it can be difficult to discover and correct workplace harassment after the fact, so workplace harassment prevention is vital.

Training and knowledge is key to preventing sexual harassment. Educate your workers (and yourself) with a vision statement that outlines workplace ethics as well as behaviors that are not okay in the workplace.

Workplace Harassment: Status Quo Might be “Status No”
In a small business where many of the employees have been around for a long time and are comfortable with each other, inappropriate behaviors around sexual harassment can become engrained as part of the culture.  But it only takes one new hire who doesn’t understand the “joke” to turn a workplace bad habit into a legal headache.

“Just because no one has complained yet doesn’t make the behavior okay,” says Julie Taylor, President of small business consulting firm Taylor Management Group. She regularly counsels clients that they need to stop seemingly minor, but inappropriate, practices that have “always” been done that way.

“Things like calling female employees ‘girls’ or sharing sexist cartoons or jokes — I have clients who have been accepting behavior like that for years,” says Taylor. “And the next new employee may be the one who complains.  So it needs to stop now.”

“Not all harassment in the workplace is as obvious as the classic ‘groping in the break room’ or ‘boss offering a promotion in return for a date,’” explains Burt Garland, shareholder at labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins.

“And harassment is hard to avoid if you and your employees don’t know what it looks like.”  He suggests working with one of the many law firms or private companies that offer in-house harassment prevention training.   “It is an expense that is well worth the cost,” notes Garland.  “Better to learn now and put an end to unlawful practices — before they cost you.”

Workplace Behavior: Setting Guidelines
In the service industry, high employee turnover and relatively young hourly workers can create its own problems, particularly when many employees know each other from outside work.

Former restaurant owner and current Director of Restaurants and Hospitality for Kaplan Real Estate Co., Inc. Kent Hirschfelder recalls the difficulties he had managing the behaviors of a teenaged workforce where the majority of the servers came from two high schools, and often brought their school and personal problems to work.

“The rule was to ‘be professional and show respect to every co-worker’ — or face termination,” he says. “Employees might date each other or hate each other on their own time, but none of that could come with them to work.”

Managing the Generational Workforce
Another concern for small businesses, particularly those in the service industry, is differences in the generational workforce. This might include a high ratio of young, hourly workers to a few older managers can lead to an “abuse of power,” if managers are not carefully hired and trained.

“A problem manager could make the high employee turnover rate for teenaged employees even higher because young workers are more likely to quit than complain,” notes Hirschfelder.  “As a business owner, you need to keep an eye out for inappropriate behaviors — things like sexist jokes, asking younger workers on dates or touching in a personal way — and put a stop to them immediately,” he says.

Find out more: Three Steps to Help Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace