Companies that want to retain their talent and avoid being the subject of a New York Times cover story or, worse, a lawsuit, must strive to make real change to stop and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The best employees will expect this and organizations and leadership need to create cultures that consistently refuse to accept inappropriate behavior at any level rather than just reacting after the cats escape their bags.

Leadership Sets the Tone

A safe and productive workplace climate can only be achieved by taking a long-term, holistic, approach. Every level of leadership--from the board of directors down to first level supervisors--must take an active role. It takes more than merely talking about the problem or even living by example.

Leadership must listen, spot issues, and take immediate action to correct potential issues as they arise. Leaders cannot tolerate sexual jokes, comments, inappropriate touching, inappropriate relationships, or any other activity that creates a hostile work environment.

Depending on your current organizational culture, this might feel like a tough task. If you are in an organization that has a “boys will be boys” mentality or has historically turned a blind eye to “locker room talk,” changing the culture will take time and may be uncomfortable initially. People may think it’s just “talk” to satisfy the media or the complainants, or a façade for liability purposes. Once you get past this first phase and show that your company is serious about the cultural shift, the second phase will be apparent discontent.

Some employees may seem angry and morale may even appear to decrease. This phase too will pass. Rest assured, your smart, talented employees will not quit because they are no longer allowed to make sexually charged jokes.

The next phase will be change. The company will start seeing more productive employees and more creative ideas coming from collaborative work. Employees may even start self-correcting and peer-correcting within environments where bad behavior is no longer tolerated – snuffing out issues before they become problems.

Meaningful and Successful HR Program

Changing the climate of the organization is not enough. Meaningful policies and procedures must be in place that are backed up with regular, valuable training. A successful HR program is one that is accessible, well-advertised, and genuine.

Sexual harassment policies must be clearly written and easy to access. Reporting procedures must be clearly written and easy to accomplish.

The investigative procedure, as well as potential complaint resolution procedures, must also be clearly written and--crucially--applied equally to all complaints. Clear policies and consistently applied, transparent procedures are key to earning employee trust.

A successful HR program is more than just a mechanism for complaints. Create clear policies and training that apply equally to every employee in the company. Review your policies and in-house training programs with a diverse, representative committee and adjust them as needs arise.

Be clear. What kind of pictures are appropriate/inappropriate to hang in offices? What kind of jokes, videos, memes can/cannot be sent via workplace email? Does your training program address inappropriate sexual behavior, comments, and relationships? Do you have bystander training? Do you have a mechanism in place where people can report bad behavior anonymously (without filing a formal complaint)?

Sound policies, procedures, and training decrease the chances of hostility creeping into the workplace environment unnoticed by management; and increase the chances of employee satisfaction.

Safe Environment for Dialogue and Mentorship

Start at the beginning. When interviewing for any position in the company, make it a point to have an open conversation with the applicant about your sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Be clear that your company is dedicated to maintaining a safe and professional environment where inappropriate sexual comments, jokes, touching and abuse will not be tolerated. Let them know before they take the job that you will ensure their work environment is safe, but that you will call them to account if their actions are making the workplace unsafe for others.

Continue the conversation. There must be more than one conversation or mandatory annual PowerPoint presentation about sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. Encourage an ongoing dialogue. Talk to employees about their work environment in feedback sessions and evaluations. Ask employees if they feel safe. Ask if they feel that their coworkers and colleagues are respectful. Encourage bystanders to disclose if they witness inappropriate behavior. It is crucial that people feel comfortable reporting uncomfortable situations.

Mentor bad actors. The goal of catching bad behavior early is to correct it before the employee becomes a manager.

Mentor and, if necessary, take disciplinary action, to prevent employees from becoming sexual harassers in the future. If, after meaningful attempts to train, the employee continues to behave inappropriately, then you can let the employee go to make room for a professional who will represent your company well.

For companies to draw and keep the best talent they must strive to create environments free from harassment and discrimination. Function, productivity, and reputation can all be tainted and destroyed by a few bad actors left unchecked.

But when leaders face the problem head on; when bad behavior is no longer tolerated or accepted, the workplace culture becomes positive, healthy and productive.

Author Information

Jennifer C. Jones is counsel at Robins Kaplan LLP in New York. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jones has first-chaired more than 45 jury and bench trials, and has also advised senior government leadership on all aspects of investigations and trial.