Handling HR complaints as a business too small to hire an HR person can be tough, especially when it comes to sexual harassment allegations. These are serious complaints that can get you into legal trouble if handled improperly. If you don’t have an HR department, here’s what you need to know about dealing with sexual harassment in your small business.
Responding to Sexual Harassment in Your Small Business
First of all, you need to know what sexual harassment in your small business looks like. It’s not just a matter of physical touch—harassment can include gossip, crude jokes, or other non-physical behaviors that create a hostile work environment in addition to physical assault.
If an employee makes a complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace, you absolutely must take it seriously and take them at their word. It’s not your place to question whether an incident happened or explain another employee’s behavior. Immediately make a formal record of the complaint.
You will likely need to conduct an investigation into the matter. I highly, highly recommend that you have a lawyer on hand to help with this step. If you violate any ethics or privacy laws, you can end up in trouble yourself. The investigation must be discreet. Talk to all employees involved to hear their side of the story. Keep a record of these conversations.
If the complaint is made against you, the situation becomes even more complicated. In this case, consult a lawyer immediately. For obvious reasons, you’ll need an outside party to conduct the investigation. Avoid approaching the employee yourself; your behavior may be perceived as threatening.
Ways to Prevent Sexual Harassment in Your Small Business
The most important way to prevent sexual harassment in your small business is to develop a strong sexual harassment policy as soon as possible. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers some tips on crafting a solid policy.
Emphasize that there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind and encourage employees to come forward if they feel threatened in any way. Create a safe environment and a confidential system for employees to report sexual harassment.
Company culture is also a strong deterrent to sexual harassment. The better you know your employees and the better you all work together, the easier it is to notice potential warning signs that someone might one day cross a line.
Make it known that your company does not tolerate off-color jokes or comments, even when two employees know each other very well. Creating a zero-tolerance culture from the start means there will be no gray area as to what’s allowed down the line. It’s your job to make acceptable behavior known and to enforce that in your culture.
There are many companies that offer sexual harassment training for small business. Have your employees undergo training like this once a year to reinforce this learning and make clear your commitment to employee safety.
Laws regarding sexual harassment in your small business vary from state to state, so while this is good general advice, be sure you consult your own state’s policies so you know exactly how to proceed.
If you’re interested in strengthening your workplace harassment policy, fill out my contact form and we’ll talk about what changes you can make.