This week two new sex bias/sexual harassment allegations came to light involving high profile people – Captain Owen Honors of the US Navy and Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings. In the former case, Captain Honors was involved in  making a series of “raunchy” videos to be broadcast on XO Movie night aboard the USS Enterprise. These videos depicted various skits using profane language and sexually explicit images. In one comment on the video you hear a narrator comment that when professional comedians were brought on board they routinely received uncontrollable laughter when one comment was made – an F-bomb. In the latter situation, Brett Favre has been accused of sexual harassment by two former massage therapists employed by the New York Jets. In their claim, Christina Scavo and Shannon O’Toole allege that they were not offered more work for the team after they complained of Favre’s inappropriate comments and sexual propositions that occurred in 2008. As with every disagreement and case, there are always 3 sides to every story – hers, his and somewhere in the middle lies the truth. One thing is certain – everything is being taken out of context and in the light of day nothing appears as it was intended. But intentions really don’t matter in sex bias/sexual harassment cases – it only matters what was perceived – and perception is reality.
So, how do you protect your company from these situations?

  1. Know your values and philosophies – whether you have 5 employees or 500, you need to know why a harassment-free workplace is important.
  2. Establish standards for behavior – Harassment, especially sexual harassment, falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and although there have been increased efforts to educate people on appropriate workplace behavior, there are still many who have not altered their behavior. For example, when asked why the massage therapists were filing suit now their attorney stated, “It’s clear that there’s no change going on at the Jets, and it’s not right, and it happens to be illegal.”
  3. Devise a Harassment Policy – Employers need to clearly define what is and is NOT acceptable behavior, what the workplace standards are, what employees should do if they witness (directly or indirectly) inappropriate behavior, protection from retaliation, how confidentiality will be maintained and consequences for filing false claims.
  4. Commit your policy to writing and distribute and communicate it to all employees
  5. Train your employees, especially your supervisors and managers – specifically they need to be able to recognize inappropriate behavior and take appropriate actions.
  6. Respond to harassment complaints – complaints must be investigated in a timely manner and unlike the Navy scandal, they should not be dismissed out of hand.

Both the employer and the employee have roles and responsibilities for creating and maintaining a respectful workplace. Your policy should clearly articulate what these are. For example, individuals must tell the harasser to stop. Some offenses, if they occur only once, may not be considered harassment, but the line becomes clearer if they are asked to stop and they do not. The second responsibility the individual has is to report instances of repeated or severe violations to their supervisor or manager. Managers can’t be everywhere and they can’t address a situation if they don’t know about it.

In both these cases, there is a conflict between what is acceptable in the entertainment arena (the professional comedian) and what’s acceptable in the workplace. Employers need to take heed – just because something is depicted by Hollywood or sports as acceptable, that is no defense in the workplace.