Lessons learned from the recent HP sexual harassment scandal

In the aftermath of sensational headlines and Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd’s sudden resignation, one thing is painfully clear: sexual harassment covers more than just employees.

In the HP case, Hurd’s sexual harassment charge came not from a subordinate or other HP employee but from an outside contractor. This highlights the extended liability companies face when it comes to sexual harassment.

Going beyond “regular” employees

Companies are responsible for protecting a variety of people in addition to employees. This can include job applicants, vendors, temp workers and, of course, contractors. As the recent HP case shows, employees’ actions related to these non-employees can result in claims of sexual harassment.

That works both ways. Employees are also extended protection from harassment by non-employees. A female bus driver brought a case against her employer because she was assaulted by one of her developmentally disabled passengers. She won, in part, because the transportation company took no action even after the driver filed reports about the passenger exposing himself.
The current reality is that harassment of or by non-employees must be treated the same as that of standard employees.

The best offense is a good defense

Like many unwanted situations, the key to handling harassment is prevention. You can accomplish that by taking a few essential steps:

Develop a sexual harassment policy
Clearly define sexual harassment and the fact that your company does not tolerate it. Decide on disciplinary action (including termination) and explain it. Be sure to set up and include a specific procedure for reporting and investigating harassment.

Train your employees (and non-employees)
Administer annual training sessions on sexual harassment. Explain what it is, how to avoid it and what to do when and if it occurs.

Train your managers and supervisors
Conduct these sessions annually for managers and supervisors, too, but separately from employee training. It’s important that they understand the procedure for handling complaints, as well as their role in properly and speedily responding to complaints.

Know the climate
Consider talking to managers and employees (informally, of course) about the tone and mood of the work environment. Ask for their thoughts and feelings – and really listen. And be certain to keep an eye open for pictures, notes, printed e-mails, etc. that may be considered offensive.

Investigate all complaints thoroughly
By taking all sexual harassment complaints seriously, you’re more likely to minimize disruption in the workplace. An immediate investigation helps you get to the heart of the matter and communicates that your company doesn’t tolerate these actions.

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