The flood of accusations of sexual harassment against film producer Harvey Weinstein is making organisations of all kinds very nervous. Including the UK Government, which has hurried to show it’s on the case – aware of the high risks involved in Parliament and a situation where powerful individuals mix each day with teams of younger, dependent staff. No organisation is safe from allegations relating to current or historic behaviour, and the resulting problems for reputation, staff relationships and worsening grievances.
We’re in a new place when it comes to allegations of inappropriate behaviour. Confusion over what might have been flirting, what was a joke, the perks of being in a senior role, just a bit uncomfortable and unwanted, is now looking and feeling different – and clearer. Employees have the models, precedents and the language to speak up about what happened or is happening to them.
Employers need to look again at the risks involved to the organisation and their people and how they would cope with an escalation of rumours and gossip into formal claims against staff, managers and leaders.
- Be pro-active in encouraging openness and communication: having a ‘Clear Air’ culture in the workplace is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour, pressures and secrecy.
- Ensure there are policies in place to respond to a sexual harassment case: a knee-jerk response isn’t going to help. It’s important to consider the system to be followed, who’s responsible and what expertise is on hand. Who’s going have the initial conversation with the employee making an accusation, and do they have the skills to cope? Mediation can be useful in preventing an escalation of situations – but do you have trained staff to do this? Or is there an external partner you can rely on?
- Watertight investigations are critical: there are many risks associated with mishandled investigations. The potential for investigation conclusions being challenged, claims of bias leading to employment tribunals, collapsing cases and humiliation; the cost of extensive management time up to senior levels; cases that keep running over long periods; the effects on staff morale, relationships and the work environment for the long-term.
- Build a reputation: making use of external expertise to run investigations into complex cases is invaluable in resolving situations, and to ensure that the employer is known and respected for its professional handling of difficult, sometimes ugly situations – it’s open, fair and reasonable in all its dealings.
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