Dealing With Harassment in the Workplace: A Guide for Business Owners
Women entrepreneurs advise taking swift action after receiving reports — both to demonstrate you take the matter seriously and to nip any problems in the bud. (Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash)

Since the #MeToo movement began about a year ago with exposes of media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of Hollywood stars, we’ve been inundated with troubling stories of workplace harassment in many industries, particularly the sexual harassment of women by powerful men.

But as the sad depths of this entrenched problem have become more visible, we have begun to look more closely at solutions, too. Implementing them is ultimately the work of business owners and managers. Are you onboard?

Business leaders are responsible for creating workplaces that are safe from assault, abuse and emotional harm. They also have an obvious interest in avoiding potentially significant legal costs, not to mention decreased productivity, talent exoduses and reputational harm. Nevertheless, we’ve seen abundant bad examples of how to deal with claims of sexual harassment at work and with the harassers, especially serial offenders in positions of power or influence. Men like Les Moonves of CBS and Andy Rubin of Google abused underlings for years, while their employers hid or buried the problem, at least until intense media attention made that no longer possible.

But many other companies, large and small, are rising to the occasion, revisiting policies and procedures to improve what they’re doing. They are responding to equally obvious incentives to create great workplaces — ones infused with respect, fairness and goodwill — that attract talented people and enable them to flourish and drive business success.

This is work that women entrepreneurs can rightly lead. That’s why we asked more than 30 from around the world how best to deal with harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Here’s their sage advice for other business owners:

1. Set clear workplace harassment policies.

The starting point is clear anti-harassment policies. This means determining and laying out what behavior is not acceptable at work — and what the consequences will be for unacceptable behavior. You should also devise a process for enforcing your policy, including who inside your organization will take the lead.

Sarah Walsh, the owner of Caffè d’Amore Coffee Company in Pittsburgh, has had to develop and enforce policies and procedures that protect both employees and cafe customers. She recommends business owners write down their policies and run them by a lawyer, mentor or human resources professional.

[Read about the incidents that prompted Walsh’s policies: This Cafe Owner Created a Community Haven Where Harassment Has No Home]

Standard policies prohibit both verbal and physical harassment, whether sexual or related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability, that create a hostile work environment. Several of the women entrepreneurs we polled argued passionately for a zero-tolerance policy that leads to termination of offenders. But consequences often include, or begin with, reprimand and suspension.

You may well iterate on your policies and procedures, refining them as you face real world situations. “If there is no process to deal with the specific behavior, that’s okay. It’s an opportunity to develop one.” Walsh says.

2. Communicate anti-harassment policies early and often.

The women entrepreneurs we surveyed also advocate clear communication of anti-harassment policies, both when bringing on new employees and periodically to all staff. You might even want employees to sign an agreement to abide by your policy or include it in employment contracts.

“Put a strict contract in place where it clearly states that harassment will lead to immediate dismissal,” advises Jennifer Glodik, the owner of Diva Slimming and Aesthetics Centre, a South African salon business with locations in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Sit-down conversations with new employees laying out your expectations and explaining the culture you’re looking to create are worthwhile. “I always start with each team member when they come onboard,” says Allison Blust-Zang of Absolute Pilates, who has five studios in Pennsylvania and a large cast of teachers. “They need to think carefully before they say negative things to clients and other staff members.”

[Explore more articles offering advice and tips for women entrepreneurs all along the entrepreneurial journey.]

3. Create safe, trusted channels for reporting inappropriate behavior.

All of your policies and procedures will be for nothing, if people who experience or witness troubling situations don’t tell you about them. Indeed, you want to encourage reporting of incidents right away, so you can ensure problems don’t fester and grow.

Unfortunately, however, silence is the norm — the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that three-quarters of people who experience harassment don’t tell superiors or others in a position to intervene. The primary reasons are fear that they won’t be believed, no action will be taken, they’ll be blamed or they’ll face social or professional retaliation.

To encourage open communication, devise a process that makes it clear where employees should go to file complaints or report incidents. Let them know how harassment claims will be handled and how they will learn what actions are taken as a result. And make it clear they can report incidents without rebuke or repercussion.

Create “safe spaces for reporting,” says Brittany Rose, founder of More Than Cheer, a Virginia company that uses cheerleading to empower girls. “Your employees must feel like they are protected and cared for.”

[Related: This Former Ravens Cheerleader is Using Her Sport to Teach Leadership to Girls]

In one example at a large company, John Deere, the farm equipment maker, created a grievance system that lets people anonymously track the progress of their cases of reported harassment. The firm also shares information about cases, with names left out, in a quarterly newsletter. This is educational for all employees and shows there’s accountability.

“Have open and honest conversations within teams to ensure people are not only comfortable with reporting something they see or hear, but also are comfortable speaking up on behalf of their colleagues and peers,” says Jenna Kerner, the co-founder of Los Angeles bra company Harper Wilde. “We must cultivate an environment in which the expectation is to address behavior when it happens and to act as an ally for anyone who may find him or herself in a compromising position.”

[Related: Read about Harper Wilde’s startup story.]

4. Investigate and address complaints right away.

Virtually all of the women we spoke to advised business owners to take swift action — both to demonstrate you take the matter seriously and to nip any problems in the bud.

“Confront the situation right away. Do not put it to the side. If you do, it shows you are not respecting the person coming forward or counting it as important,” says Alexa Carlin of Women Empower Expo, an annual event for female entrepreneurs and leaders held in North America. “Even if it’s a situation where you do not know how to handle it right away, always make sure you are communicating properly and let them know you are taking it seriously.”

Then hear out both parties, the accuser and the accused, to find out what happened. You may also want to interview co-workers. If necessary, hire a trained investigator to get to the bottom of the problem.

[Related: Lead Like a Woman: 9 Qualities to Drive Your Success as an Entrepreneur]

5. Stop abusive behavior in its tracks.

It’s often appropriate to give warnings about unacceptable behavior and try to change that behavior before taking the grave step of firing someone. In this case, you may want to invoke a probationary period, during which you actively monitor for any additional infractions that might lead to disciplinary escalation.

Though protecting the person harassed is clearly the top priority of women entrepreneurs we spoke to, several also encourage concern for the alleged harasser. “Find out what’s going on with the accused, see if they have social and life issues. Maybe they need counseling, maybe they were not taught to respect others,” says Sharon Levy of Taking Tea InStyle, a New Jersey service that caters and hosts tea parties. But if that doesn’t end the problem, she adds, “then whatever is appropriate for that company to maintain a safe working environment must be done.”

“As a person who has personally been a victim of a senior coworker’s inappropriate behavior, I believe that a strong stand must be taken,” says Anisha Chaudhari, owner of Threads & Shirts, a made-to-measure clothing company in Mumbai, India. “If a women feels uncomfortable and objectified, she should be heard … and strict appropriate action must be taken to serve as an example.”

[Related: This Nonprofit is Using Talk and Technology to End Harassment]

When clear, “unacceptable behavior must be addressed as soon as possible and as safely as possible,” says Walsh of Caffè d’Amore. She recommends having a neutral third party present during actions like firings or asking customers to leave. “In the case of criminal behavior, call the police, always. We have no responsibility to protect others from the consequences of their criminal decisions, and it hurts the business if it is not addressed.”

6. Let employees know you took action.

“In my view, the best way to deal with harassment and inappropriate behavior in any office is to call out that behavior,” says Jacqueline V. Twillie, founder of ZeroGap, a Dallas company that teaches leadership skills to women in male-dominated industries. “It takes each person looking out for the other person and saying wrong is wrong.”

In fact, the outcomes of harassment cases should be disclosed publicly, argues Anita Hill, the Brandeis professor who famously testified about her sexual harassment in the 1991 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas. She currently heads the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality. Although companies typically want to protect employee privacy, transparency is needed “to build trust and prevent violators from being passed off to other workplaces,” Hill told the The New York Times.

Google is pledging greater transparency to rebuild trust, after thousands of employees walked off the job amid news that Andy Rubin was quietly ousted 2 years ago and given a $90 million golden parachute. The company says it will now publicly report data on sexual harassment and assault, including the number of substantiated and partly substantiated claims.

Your end goal: a safe place, culture of respect and focus on work.

Stopping unwanted behavior will not just protect your business, it will make it stronger, when paired with efforts to create a culture of respect and kindness.

[Related: How Kindness in Business Pays Off for Leaders]

Allison Monaghan McGuire owns two New York companies, Walc, which makes a mapping app, and Monaghan McGuire, a consulting firm serving female entrepreneurs. She advocates “establishing a culture that values all voices and doesn’t embolden frat activities” like heavy drinking and playing foosball and, instead, “thinks about adult needs” like healthy food and pumping rooms.

Several women emphasize the elevation of women in the workplace — something that many family businesses have proved adept at — as a vital means to a workplace culture where women and men are respected. After all, since harassment is a form of abuse of power, shifting the power dynamics can eliminate the behavior.

“Today’s leaders must make a personal commitment to increase women’s presence in decision-making — not just in their numbers, but in their contributions,” says Anna Haotanto of The New Savvy, a financial, investments and career platform for women in Asia. “Managers must learn to welcome women’s input and contribution in order to create an environment where male and female members of the team are considered equally and there is no place for harassment or inappropriate behavior within the culture of the business.”