A Workplace Issue That Hasn't Gone Away

It’s almost a daily event- Another new account of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

I wrote about this problem in the May Work Matters column. The article began with me attending a legal update class where a male labor attorney stated that sexual harassment and discrimination numbers have declined steadily for the past ten years.

My team and I couldn’t believe the attorney’s statement. We were experiencing monthly incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace and our requests for investigations, intervention and training was at an all-time high. The discrepancy was underscored by the many responses I received after the column came out.

Two responses in particular stood out that summed up the problem. One male business leader approached me at a business event and said, “You know, Rose, I read your column every month but I have to tell you.... Your last column on sexual harassment was so cynical. Were you having a bad day?” I asked him, “Why would you think that?” And he said, “Because that stuff doesn’t happen anymore!” I turned to him and said, “I wish that was true, but it’s not.”

I then brought up an email I received from a good friend, who is a former attorney in New York State. Her email read, “Rose. I just read your Work Matters column in today’s paper and I’m giving you a standing ovation. You took an assertive and critically important stand in calling out sexual harassment and challenging the trend to consider it no longer a concern. The examples you cited are very telling. You are not taking a popular position. There are those who would rather not talk about this any more and consider those that do as stirring the pot. But bringing these issues to light and supporting continued national discourse is what this nation is all about. It is what brings about awareness and change. So, thank you Rose for stepping up and for your courageous column.”

He read the email and to his credit said, “Oh my. I guess I’ve been in the dark.”

He’s not the only one. I think it’s safe to say, many of us have become complacent to sexual harassment. But the tide is turning. A new crop of brave women do not accept the status quo. Our young professionals have been labeled demanding and entitled. That may or may not be true. But, one thing is for sure, they don’t seem afraid.

Young professionals are pretty much fearless, and their fearlessness is driving a lot of long-overdue change. Recounts from decades of victims of sexual harassment usually include their hesitation to reporting incidences because they feared retaliation. They tell stories of witnessing career-stalling consequences of women who came forward. Their harassers were the ones in control, so they kept quiet and endured it or found other jobs. Most women 50 and up nod in agreement.

When telling a young professional, the same story, the reaction is quite different. Most speak up and state they would never stand for it. And I believe them. These are the kids that were told daily to scream bloody murder if a stranger touched them. They have a no-tolerance attitude toward sexual harassment which is a step in the right direction to changing behaviors. They do not hesitate to find a means to report. We are seeing this with the uptick of reporting to Human Resources Departments.

But what happens when a small business has no HR department? There was no HR department at Charlie Rose Inc., the independent production company of Charlie Rose, whom multiple women have accused of sexual harassment. Small businesses generally have little or no HR presence. In addition, no one is trained in helping employees with sexual harassment claims. Employees who are being harassed in a small business may feel there is nowhere to go. Who do they go to, the boss? Remember, many times it’s the boss who’s being accused of the sexual harassment. Also know the sexual harassment can come from any source like a client, a vendor or a board member.

Luckily, even the smallest of businesses can offer employees a reporting mechanism. It’s important that all businesses use channels for documenting complaints and demonstrate how the company took appropriate measures to respond to all complaints, fairly and equitably. We have seen how employers have successfully impacted sexual harassment awareness by implementing an Employee Hotline, Employee Assistance Programs, or the use of on-site HR consultants.

Even larger businesses with HR departments should review their reporting procedures, their communications on sexual harassment, refresh trainings and analyze ways to root out behaviors threatening fair treatment for all.

These methods send an important message to employees that complaints are addressed in a confidential and impartial manner. The complaint procedures are mapped out to direct employees to use the reporting mechanisms. The procedures are included and communicated through handbooks, onboarding and trainings.

Of course, we also understand employees know they can file claims with the Equal Opportunity Commission, the Department of Human Rights or a private labor attorney. A business being proactive in using some type of human resources support system is a much better alternative than waiting for the Feds to arrive. Left unresolved, we will be seeing the legal trend go in reverse.