Sexual Harassment Policy Enforcement Starts From the Top Down

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is at the center of a national sexual harassment scandal involving more than 16 women, yet no formal charges have been filed against him, and he remains in office. This serves as a cautionary tale for organizations teaching and enforcing state, federal and corporate sexual harassment policies.

In a corporate setting, a leader’s actions and response time regarding sexual harassment claims sets a crucial companywide tone toward sexual harassment policies, and a company’s slow response time, as is the case with Filner, can have negative repercussions.

An organization’s ability to manage sexual harassment claims against a high-level executive is paramount to a healthy work environment, according to David Lewis, president and CEO of the consultancy Operations Inc.

“The more you harbor an individual like the mayor in your organization and essentially minimize the complaint level by those employees and their perceptions and feelings about the situation, you are essentially fostering a hostile work environment,” Lewis said. “You are supporting that environment instead of diffusing that environment, and that puts [a company] at a huge risk.”

In Filner’s case, the series of sexual harassment complaints against him continued to mount this summer, and the government launched an investigation that ultimately led to Filner’s public admittance of making unwanted physical contact with women with whom he worked, according to news reports.

Despite the admitted validity of some of the harassment allegations, Filner, 70, has only completed a two-week, voluntary behavioral therapy program as a result, according to news reports. While Filner has made a public apology, organizations facing similar situations with top-level leaders should take note.

“You just simply can’t write it off,” Lewis said. “When you get in a situation when you’ve got all these things stacked against you, a mere apology — whether it be in the circumstance in San Diego or in a circumstance with a business — does not work. It does not serve the company or the entity in satisfying their goal of minimizing liability, of correcting an issue with the company’s culture and of people’s perceptions.”

If sexual harassment allegations are being made toward a CEO or other top-level company executive, an organization is obligated to follow up, both legally and for the betterment of the workplace’s culture, by reporting the allegation, according to Raymond Peeler, senior attorney-adviser at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office of Legal Counsel.

“Even if [high-level executives] are involved, it’s important for the leaders to make it clear that sexual harassment is not gong to be tolerated in the workplace,” Peeler said. “If leadership is going to take it seriously, the employees are going to take it seriously.”

Begin at the Top
Before putting a crisis-management plan in place, businesses should evaluate their sexual harassment policies and enforcement efforts to make sure employees at every level understand how to file and report sexual harassment claims and respond to allegations, according to Peeler.

Managers and human resources representatives should make it clear through their actions that they stand behind the organization’s sexual harassment policies and should provide employees with multiple places to report a harassment complaint “so that if the harasser is the person they are supposed to report to, they have somewhere else they can go,” Peeler said.

In addition, organizations can reinforce their zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies by conducting annual training courses where employees are given an updated policy handbook and are involved in a guided interactive discussion among various employee levels. “You can’t get away with shortcutting this,” Lewis said.

Companies should ensure employees are aware of federal and state sexual harassment policies by providing them with an employee handbook outlining a company’s harassment awareness and prevention policies during onboarding, and in some cases by making it a separate sign-off sheet, Lewis said.

“For those people who have watched, with some regularity, the events over the course of the last several months in San Diego, don’t fool yourself or kid yourself into thinking that what’s going on there is consistent with how an employer, in general, should handle these matters,” Lewis said.

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.