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is108348460 harrassment lawsuit largeIt’s year-end, and your company is planning to hold a holiday party for the staff. You particularly want to avoid a recurrence of last year’s drama, which saw a new young intern burst into tears at the height of the celebrations and storm out of the building, never to return.

On investigation you heard rumors that your IT manager had been a little “in his cups” and had said something inappropriate, but you suspect there’s more to the story than that.

You can’t get a straight answer out of anyone, however, and have an uneasy feeling that there are things going on you just don’t know about.

You can’t get a straight answer out of anyone, however, and have an uneasy feeling that there are things going on you just don’t know about.

If any aspect of this example sounds familiar, you could be in a prime position to be hit with a sexual misconduct lawsuit that could cost you your business, drive away customers and prospects, and damage your brand reputation.

What the Numbers Say

Since the birth of the #MeToo movement in 2017 in the U.S., sexual assault victims in other countries have begun speaking out in a similar vein. In October 2017, Canada reported that the incidence of assaults reported rose by 29 percent over the previous month, and 46 percent over the previous year.

In the U.S., a 2017 CNBC All-America Survey found that 19 percent of American adults say they have been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Among men, the figure was 10 percent, while among women it jumped to 27 percent.

What is Sexual Misconduct?

Many myths abound about what constitutes sexual misconduct, and it’s important to understand not only what you could face, but also what the fallout could be. Experts believe defining inappropriate behaviors is not only a step toward prevention, but also helps to avoid the morass of “unfounded” accusations.

To make it harder, what constitutes consent in some states doesn’t apply in others, and companies are permitted to form their own policies.

To make it harder, what constitutes consent in some states doesn’t apply in others, and companies are permitted to form their own policies. These can either conform to state laws or be more expansive, applying to anything from non-consensual penetration to inappropriate language.

Take a Stand

Before formulating a policy, it’s necessary to determine your stance on the issue. A zero-tolerance position sounds great, but take care to ensure that doesn’t leave the door open for actions based on unsubstantiated reports.

During the tenure of the #MeToo movement, there have been many people accused of sexual misconduct whose lives and careers have been ruined by knee-jerk reactions to reports and cries demanding their resignations, even before taking steps to determine the truth.

This kind of response can cause financial and reputation losses just as big as those following a legitimate accusation and it undermines the credibility of those with a real case.

This kind of response can cause financial and reputation losses just as big as those following a legitimate accusation and it undermines the credibility of those with a real case.

Your position should be to simultaneously support victims, make provision for investigation and consequences, and allow for fair treatment of all parties.

Develop a Rock-Solid Policy

Create a written policy document that outlines and provides examples of sexual misconduct as defined by your business. There are multiple websites offering free templates you can use, or you can consult with an experienced business attorney to help you with this process. The policy should also outline the consequences for employees who engage in any of the activities listed and make provision for bystanders to submit reports as well.

Establish a safe reporting procedure for employees to use when filing complaints of this nature and offer more than one avenue for them to do so. You’ll need to ensure the confidentiality of the reports, and guarantee any allegations made won’t affect the accuser’s job security. This is especially important in cases where the perpetrator is in a supervisory position and employees filing reports need to understand they will be protected against retaliation.

It's important to make sure your policy is taken seriously. Taking it seriously starts at the top, not the bottom. Your team will quickly discount this if you are the worst offender.

It's important to make sure your policy is taken seriously. Taking it seriously starts at the top, not the bottom. Your team will quickly discount this if you are the worst offender. Unless you’re 100 percent certain you have the knowledge and the ability in-house to manage the allegations and investigation them, it might benefit you to bring in outside counsel to help.

Communicate and Train

The best policy in the world doesn’t work if nobody knows about it.

The best policy in the world doesn’t work if nobody knows about it. Make a point of communicating it clearly and regularly to your staff. Do this formally during meetings and performance reviews, and informally during conversations. Present training sessions for employees during which they can review the policy, ask questions, and develop an understanding of the importance of the issue.

Often, mistrust and low-grade bullying in the ranks promote a message that company leadership doesn’t really care about core values, behavior, or employee safety.

Often, mistrust and low-grade bullying in the ranks promote a message that company leadership doesn’t really care about core values, behavior, or employee safety. Not only does that undermine your hard work developing a sexual misconduct policy, but it is also more likely to result in victims going straight to an attorney rather than reporting instances in-house.

Promote a Healthy Company Culture

In a company with a robust and healthy culture, workers are more likely to feel supported and encouraged to report issues before taking legal action. Conduct a culture assessment to determine what it’s like being an employee in your business.

Develop a culture that values men, women, and transgender people equally, that appreciates ethnic and racial diversity, and accepts differences in religious beliefs.

Address all instances of behavior that are not in line with your values, even if they aren’t illegal.

Encourage workers to “see something, say something,” and never, ever, sweep a troubling issue under the carpet.

Encourage workers to “see something, say something,” and never, ever, sweep a troubling issue under the carpet.

The conversation around sexual misconduct is changing, and companies need to be ready and willing to change with it. Unless your business has a sound policy in place and is fully prepared to apply it, you risk being a casualty of the #MeToo revolution. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take steps to protect yourself from this happening.

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