What’s Unacceptable & bad for business?

Whether through ignorance, naivety
or insensitivity, right now your employees – male and female – may be putting themselves and you at risk of costly complaint and grievance process.
It could be behaviour that’s gone unchallenged in the past, so it’s now considered acceptable. And it might be affecting your business in ways you don’t know about and are unequipped to remedy.

What is sexual harassment?
It’s complex. At one extreme, there is behaviour that most of us recognise as completely unacceptable.
But it’s not always so clear-cut – what seems harmless to one person may be offensive to another. Take these examples:
? Scenario one: young woman in the staff cafeteria is approached from behind by male colleague during office drinks. He pulls her blouse up, exposing her bra to other workmates. She thinks it’s hilarious, but third party feels her own safety in the workplace is now compromised, and lays complaint.
? Scenario two: Two employees at conference go out on the town one night, and end up sleeping together. The following week, back at work, one of the two starts talking to colleagues about the incident. The other person involved claims their workplace no longer feels safe, and asks for financial compensation.
? Scenario three: Male staff members complain that female IT manager frequently rubs her breasts against them while leaning over them at their computers. She says she can’t help it – she has large breasts and it is unintentional. During an investigation, it is found that she never had the same problems with female staff members.
These are all ?true story’ scenarios, and in all of them the employer was liable.
Legally, harassment, is unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated or significant enough to have harmful effect. It is also unlawful to promise preferential treatment in return for sexual favours in these areas, or to threaten harmful treatment because of refusal.
As an employer, you are responsible for the behaviour of your employees, your suppliers, and your customers and clients – and anyone alleging harassment may lay complaint with the Human Rights Commission or lodge personal grievance claim with the Employment Tribunal.
The hidden costs
Sexual harassment destroys morale, creates hostile work environment, affects work performance and undermines positive work relationships, trust and team building all of which impact negatively on your business.
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) tells us that 63 percent of all complainants to the Commission over the last five years chose to leave their jobs. Over that five-year period, sexual harassment has cost employers and respondents total of $690,492 – and that is just the figure for reported cases – those brought to the complaints tribunal. It doesn’t include the cost of hiring and training replacements for those complainants that chose to resign.
While employers pay, on average, damages of $6072 per dispute, there are no figures in this country for what sexual harassment case really costs business – in terms of advertising and recruitment, retraining and induction costs, low productivity and poor performance. Australian research puts the figure at A$45,000 per complaint.
According to the HRC, the problem of sexual harassment is not diminishing, and sexual harassment complaints make up quarter of all complaints received (second only to discrimination due to disability).
What’s the answer?
“Don’t panic!” says Jan Eggleton, professional trainer in workplace sexual harassment prevention. It is possible to combat sexual harassment and protect yourself from liability.
You must establish policy, procedures and workplace training, which will not only help to combat harassment and ensure safe, productive work environment, but also ensure you can respond to case of harassment successfully and confidently.
“The employer has defence,” Eggleton says, “if they can show that practicable steps have been taken to prevent sexual harassment, or to deal with it if it occurs.”

What about outside the
company?
The same applies to harassment of staff by suppliers, contractors or customers.
The employer has to prove they took all the steps they could to ensure offensive behaviour does not occur or recur. “The extent of liability is judged on the effort made to prevent sexual harassment.”
So, what is required? The more robust your policy the better, and the more you can involve your staff in the process the more effective it will be. The HRC recommends that businesses use qualified trainers to initiate programme, but this is an outline of what you can expect.
? Step 1. The person: The first step is to appoint programme coordinator or specified employee to whom complaints can be taken. This person will be trained, and it is their job to promote policy and educate employees. They will establish formal and informal complaint procedures, monitor all programmes, and report regularly to management.
? Step 2. Tell everyone: The chief executive must issue policy statement reinforcing the company’s commitment to sexual harassment policy. This should say what sexual harassment is, that it won’t be tolerated, and action will be taken if it occurs.
? Step 3. Complaints process: The third step is to establish complaints procedure. This will vary depending on company’s size or structure, but it should ensure that complaints are handled promptly, privately and fairly.
The name and contact details of the employee whom staff can go to with complaints, should be included, and an assurance that all discussions and investigations are in confidence. It is crucial that the procedures are set out clearly, and are understood by everyone.
? Step 4. Educate: Finally, initiate promotion and education programme to ensure all employees know their rights and responsibilities and understand the company’s policies and procedures. After training, staff will know what sexual harassment is and what to do if it happens to them. Everyone will be clear about the appropriate, acceptable ways to behave and know that management will act against sexual harassment (which can sometimes be enough to change behaviour).

Protect your staff and your
business
The HRC has launched campaign to reduce the number of complaints by raising awareness and promoting access to education for businesses. This month will see the first Sexual Harassment Prevention Week, which features television advertisement aimed at employers. The ad will promote an 0800 line for free information and direct people to website for more comprehensive information.
The HRC has network of trainers in place around the country, allowing employers to access sexual harassment prevention services, training session, and offering help to implement robust policy and processes.
The booklet Guide for Employers: Dealing with Sexual Harassment goes through the above steps in detail. It is available from the Commission, or your local Employers Association.
The Human Rights Commission, Ph: 0800 496 877, Fax: 0-9-377 3593, www.hrc.co.nz.

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