Keeping Peace On The Floor

Our strong anti-sexual-harassment policies work, but we still have to wrestle with plenty of ambiguity

Almost every small-businessperson I talk to is terrified of being sued for sexual harassment. They constantly fret over whether some objectionable employee behavior is going to land them in court and cost them thousands of dollars in settlement costs. Indeed, two years ago, my family business, Emerald Packaging Inc., settled a sexual-harassment case a former employee filed against our company and one of our supervisors. Including legal and settlement costs, the bill topped $40,000.

So the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on sexual harassment earlier this year was more than welcome. The Justices laid out general rules for employers, saying they could usually avoid liability in harassment cases by showing they tried to prevent harassment and took fast action to stop noxious behavior. The court also ruled that plaintiffs had to take advantage of company programs designed to investigate harassment claims before rushing off to file lawsuits. At last, there was a road map to avoid landing in court on harassment charges, valid or invalid.

OUT IN FRONT. Fortunately, the court's thinking was close to our own. We have a harassment policy in our employee handbook that lays out a complaint procedure and disciplinary measures and states that no one reporting harassment will face retaliation. When I wrote the handbook two years ago, I had placed the policy toward the back, but our attorney moved it up to No.3. "You want everyone to know just how important you think this is," he told me.

It was good advice; the Justices, too, want such statements prominently displayed. We go even further: Every new hire has to sign a statement saying he or she understands that we don't tolerate harassment and that we'll investigate every case and take disciplinary action when needed. We post our policy on the bulletin board, and I remind employees about it at plant-wide meetings.

The aggressive stance seems to have worked--no lawsuits since. But perhaps more telling, at least five employees have stepped forward to complain about harassment--from a male employee pressing a female co-worker for dates to inappropriate touching by a male employee. Each case has been investigated by our team (me, the plant manager, the office manager, and my sister--two men, two women). The process includes interviewing the accuser, the accused, and any witnesses. I take notes and write up the findings in case the matter ends up before a judge. And I consult with our attorney and review with him any disciplinary action we're planning to take.

Sounds tidy, right? Problem is, shop-floor relations aren't. Things are often ambiguous at best. Last year, I had to grill a foreman about whether he had slapped a female employee on the rear, as she had alleged. His admission earned him a one-week suspension and a warning that he'd be fired for any more improper touching. So far, so good. But then a male employee complained that the woman in the case often put her arms around her male colleagues, in effect harassing them. This precipitated a staff meeting at which employees were told to keep their hands to themselves. The female complainant also faced withering criticism from several women who accused her of being unfair to the popular foreman. When she brought her concerns about retaliation to management, we reminded everyone about our no-retaliation policy.

Sexual banter, common in many factories, can also make identifying harassment difficult. Earlier this year, a female employee came to me crying, insisting a male co-worker had threatened to rape her. The accused admitted, ashamed, that he had told the woman he'd like to rape her. "But," he protested, "I only did that after she suggested a three-way at the Super 8 Motel. I thought we were just kidding around." I reprimanded him anyway, and he got a warning slip. I also called the accuser back. Yes, she had suggested a menage a trois. But only jokingly, she insisted. Welcome to the real world.

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