How to Prevent Sexual Harassment at Your Law Firm
Sexual harassment certainly exists in the legal world, as we’ve recently reported. So what can you do if you’re running a firm and you want make sure such incidents are not part of your workplace at all? There are various ways for a law firm to make it clear to all employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
Here, some leading experts share how to do just that:
Be a good role model.
If you’re in any position of power at a law firm, check your own behavior. “Remember, you are setting the tone for the entire organization,” says Barbara Walters, president of the HR Advantage, who has led a harassment prevention investigation committee for 13 years. Adds Laura Handrick, a human resources expert who has served as the human resources director in Fortune 100 companies, “The higher level the leader, the more likely they are to behave in inappropriate ways because they think ‘who’s going to report me?’ So if you’re that leader who thinks it’s okay to disparage females and gay people or tease office workers, just stop. Just because employees are afraid to report you, that doesn’t mean they won’t have a concern with your behavior. And you might not know until they quit… and you’re hit with a lawsuit.”
Create a clear sexual harassment policy.
If someone is sexually harassed at your firm, he or she should have a clear understanding of the proper steps to take to report the incident. “Have a clear, succinct, and documented harassment policy which covers verbal, physical, and emotional harassment,” says Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, MSW, PhD, a social science researcher in Philadelphia. Such a policy might be in an employee handbook, for instance. “This should clearly state whom the individual should report to and what the consequences of behavior may be. ‘Zero tolerance’ means nothing unless you define it”
Maintain an open-door policy.
It’s essential that everyone at the firm knows they can speak freely about the perceived incident or incidents that they regard as sexual harassment, says Gary S. Young, an employment lawyer in New Jersey. Also, if you have people on staff who administer the policy—such as an HR staff—make sure there’s at least one woman on the committee so all employees feel comfortable reporting issues, suggests Steven Adler, who has practiced employment law for 35 years and is co-chair of his firm’s labor and employment law practice group in New Jersey.
Take stock of your company’s culture.
It’s important to know what kind of work environment people on staff are experiencing. “Hire a consulting firm that specializes in organizational analysis to assess if your company/firm has a culture of harassment,” says Dr. Donnelly, “Another great way to discover what is actually going on within your organization is to conduct a completely anonymous employee survey,” suggests Cynthia Fenton, who has 15 years of experience in litigation and employment compliance.
Train all employees.
Many experts recommend that you conduct formal policy training or anti-harassment training sessions for everyone on staff each year. “Offering such an annual training program keeps the policy top of mind and helps people learn about any new litigation or statutes related to sexual harassment,” says Handrick. “For example, this year, gender neutral restrooms became an issue in the media, and several states have enacted policies against pregnancy discrimination and discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual identity.”
Most importantly, make sure everyone on staff shows up to such training—even the managing partner(s) and executive committee. The managing partner might even speak to “make it very clear to all in attendance that this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” suggests Adler. “I recall an occasion when I was conducting training at a large company New York City when the CEO stood up, got everyone’s undivided attention, and said that the company would not hesitate to terminate any employee, no matter how high in the food chain, if he or she was found to have harassed any other employee. That is precisely the message an employer, including law firms, should want to send to staff members.”
If someone reports sexual harassment, don’t wait a few weeks to see how things play out. Respond immediately to every incident. “Set and enforce a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for harassing behavior,” says Walters. “Delaying or doing nothing is equal to condoning poor behavior. In other words, any exception you make sets a precedent and opens you up for more of the same.” Create a committee to investigate claims and harassment complaints, and then always respond to such complaints as quickly as possible.
Look beyond your firm.
Of course, you want to prevent any sexual harassment within your firm. However, don’t forget about your clients and other companies you might work with. “An often missed area of sexual harassment prevention is the training of all employees on the fact that they can and should report any harassment from non-employees– this includes lawyers from other firms, vendors that service the firm, or clients who may behave in an inappropriate way,” says Handrick. “Employees need to know that management will address these issues, up to and including terminating the client or vendor relationship, if the harassment does not stop.”