One of this week's leading headlines was the ouster of Bill O'Reilly from Fox News following numerous claims of sexual harassment from women who worked at the network.

After the news broke, Lisa Bloom, an attorney representing some of the women alleging sexual misconduct, issued a statement saying, "I am very proud to have stood with my brave clients who have stood up for themselves and all the silenced women." And she should be. Many of these women have been silent in the workplace, accepting sexual harassment as a way of life.

In my own experience, I have only to go back three or four years, when a good friend who was employed as a vice president at a bank was getting propositioned by her boss, the CEO. She didn't want to go to HR because she didn't think HR would do anything about it. Instead, she took what some still regard as the appropriate course of action: She didn't complain; she simply left the company to find work elsewhere. Meanwhile, the pattern of abuse continued unchecked in the company she left behind.

The message for CEOs and chief human resource officers (CHROs) who are concerned about their corporate cultures and values is that for every woman who comes forward on a highly visible case, many more conclude that there would be too much pushback and potential career damage if they filed a complaint. They believe that their organizations tacitly accept and tolerate harassment and that the best way out is to just find another job.

Bad news, good news

This is bad news for companies that want to retain their top performers who happen to be female. But the good news is that officers in senior positions at companies can now take an active role to prevent sexual harassment at work and to facilitate a safe environment for all.

Attorney Melanie Berkowitz suggests these three steps:

  • Requiring all employees, and especially managers, to undergo a required sexual harassment training program
  • Responding to complaints immediately and appropriately
  • Managing potential sexual harassment incidents or situations before they get out of hand

Let's take a closer look at these recommendations.

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Sexual harassment policy

The Tech Pro Research Sexual Harassment Policy provides definitions and examples of various forms of sexual harassment and outlines procedures for filing and handling complaints.
Free for Tech Pro Research subscribers.

1: Require training in sexual harassment

The tech workspace is global and highly diversified, so sexual harassment awareness must be taught on several levels.

First, there is the law, which in the US says "It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include 'sexual harassment' or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."

Harassment can also include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

It is important for companies to teach the law to employees and managers because an individual might define sexual harassment as an overt action or highly suggestive comment, when it could be a sexually oriented remark, like, "Why don't you do some filing instead of installing grids in the the field? Those jobs are man's work."

In other countries, there could be gender sensitivities that are unique to certain cultures. When I was a vice president in the semiconductor industry, my HR department informed me that it was perfectly appropriate to extend my hand in a welcoming handshake to visitors from certain countries while we were on American soil--but in their countries, a handshake between a man and a woman was considered an inappropriate intimate gesture.

Finally, sexual harassment isn't always men being overly aggressive with women. I know of several cases where women in managerial positions were the ones who were doing the harassing.

2: Respond to complaints immediately and appropriately

If you are in corporate HR, and a manager in the company is accused of sexual harassment, address the complaint immediately. Don't let it build. If you do, you will be perceived as someone who prefers to look the other way and who therefore condones harassment by your inaction. On the other hand, it's also your responsibility to thoroughly interview all parties to the incident, along with anyone who might have been a witness.

This can be a difficult process for many HR professionals. In such cases, it is advisable to seek assistance from an outside consultant or counselor. The goal is to confront and resolve the situation as quickly as possible. You want to leave the impression with all parties that the company will not tolerate harassment and that it exercises a fair and diligent due process that is considerate of everyone.

3: Manage potential sexual harassment incidents or situations before they get out of hand

By interceding early on in sexual harassment incidents, you can avoid escalation and take positive steps toward resolution. In some cases, no real harassment was intended. It may have simply been a manager's insensitivity. In other cases, there are real and substantive issues. The only thing we know for sure is that it is easier for companies to resolve these situations in the early stages.