How to address workplace misbehavior in the #MeToo age

Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct have been front and center in the media for months now. Reports of film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s conduct, followed by reports of similar behavior from other famous and powerful men in entertainment, politics, sports, and business, have sparked a new awareness and intolerance for conduct that crosses the line.

Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has empowered victims to come forward and report misbehavior.

This has implications for employers.  Sexual harassment has been considered a form of illegal discrimination for several decades and employers have long been expected to take allegations seriously. But now there’s an even higher expectation that employers will actively address workplace sexual misconduct and proactively take steps to make it less likely to occur in the first place. Employers who fail to do so risk negative publicity, legal liability and the serious financial fallout that can follow.

So what can employers do? Here are some ways to get started:

  • Foster and maintain an inclusive culture

Though nothing can guarantee problems will never arise, employers that maintain a culture of mutual respect among workers are less likely to be vulnerable to sexual misconduct and other types of harassing or discriminatory conduct within their ranks. This means training your entire workforce. The best kind of training involves realistic situations that are relevant and specific to your work environment. Training also must be done frequently — once a year at the very least — and constantly modified to stay fresh, engaging and relevant to the realities of a changing workplace. This sends a message that an inclusive, tolerant culture is important to the company. A good employment lawyer can either provide such training or direct you to good training resources.

  • Provide multiple channels for workers to report inappropriate behavior

One of the biggest obstacles to combating workplace misconduct is workers’ reluctance to report it, either because they fear retaliation or they are uncomfortable with the designated manager to whom they’re supposed to report. One way to combat this is by having multiple individuals designated as appropriate people for reporting incidents of harassment. This increases the odds that the employee will feel safe reporting misbehavior.

  • Evaluate your workplace for risk factors

Certain workplace dynamics can increase the risk of sexual misconduct as well as racial, ethnic or other forms of harassment and discrimination. For example, cultural and language differences in the workplace can potentially create tension, as can gender and age imbalances. “Work hard, play hard” workplaces that hold a lot of alcohol-fueled events also create obvious risk factors.

A diverse workplace in terms of age, race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background, or a lively, fun workplace that offers social outlets, obviously isn’t a bad thing. Diverse companies and companies where workers have a chance to bond are stronger companies, and of course, it’s illegal to make employment decisions that seek to maintain a racially, ethnically or sexually homogeneous workplace. But it’s also important to be mindful of the tensions that can arise in any workplace setting.

  • Investigate quickly and thoroughly with the help of an attorney

Employers get in trouble when they don’t follow up on complaints. This means it’s critical to investigate promptly and comprehensively any situation that comes to your attention. Doing so will minimize the risk of an unacceptable situation continuing to fester without your knowledge. It will also minimize the risk of that you will act too soon to discipline or fire the alleged perpetrator without having all the facts, which can also subject you to legal consequences. It goes without saying that anyone involved in conducting an investigation must be thoroughly trained and the investigation must be confidential. Enlisting an employment attorney to assist you is a great place to start.