Over the past few weeks, story after story has come to light of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. But though high profile actors, directors, and producers are getting most of the press attention right now, the vast majority of workplace sexual harassment is experienced by low-wage hourly employees, often in small businesses. Employers in every industry should take advantage of the current wake-up call to make sure their policies and procedures are effective in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. For one thing, harassment does expose a business to potential liability because of lawsuits from current and former employees. But more importantly, a hostile workplace is less likely to hire and retain the best performers, both women and men. This isn’t the 1960s any longer; a company that doesn’t have a clear sexual harassment policy is on the road to failure.
The cannabis industry is particularly vulnerable to harassment situations for two main reasons. First, marijuana businesses are still predominately made up of men. Male-dominated businesses often develop a language and culture that can be overtly hostile to women, and cannabis businesses are no different. Second, the industry is still young, and a large number of people in cannabis management do not have similar executive-level experience in other businesses. Many cannabis businesses lack any sort of policies to address workplace harassment.
Sexual Harassment Policies
A company’s written sexual harassment policy should have a few goals. Specifically, it should
- inform employees and contractors of the company’s objective to maintain a workplace free of harassment in all forms, including sexual harassment,
- define prohibited conduct,
- give examples of prohibited conduct,
- establish procedures for reporting sexual harassment, including clarifying a duty to report and establishing confidentiality of any reports,
- prohibit retaliation, and
- inform employees and contractors of potential disciplinary actions for violating policy.
No matter the precise nature of the policy, training and reinforcement have to be mandatory. Just about everyone can agree that certain activity crosses the line at the workplace. But many people, especially those who have not received formal sexual harassment training, can unwittingly create a hostile workplace with actions they did not perceive to be wrong. A company’s sexual harassment culture should become stronger over time if the company takes advantage of the feedback loop of training, reporting, retraining, and reinforcement training.
Dealing with Sexual Harassment Reports
Maintaining a policy is only half the battle. Employers must make sure their policy is consistently implemented company-wide. Businesses need to accomplish two goals that can be at odds with one another. They need to provide multiple avenues for employees to report harassment, but they also need to make sure the company deals consistently with reports no matter from where reports come in. Company owners and managers must be subject to the same policy as their employees, and companies need to have an avenue to discipline owners and managers to show employees that their sexual harassment policies are applied consistently across the board.
One avenue a company can encourage, when possible, is for the person levying the complaint to address the situation with the offending coworker directly. Oftentimes, a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up that way. But if that isn’t possible or if the employees is uncomfortable doing that for any reason, the next step is generally for the employee to report the harassment to their immediate supervisor or to the company’s HR department. Multiple layers of reporting are necessary, especially when the harassment may be coming from, for example, the employee’s direct supervisor. Companies that are not large enough to have dedicated HR departments should still have employees or owners that are taking on the role of HR. Some companies even have dedicated harassment committees or ombudsmen that are generally not associated with management or ownership and that can ensure that there is an outside voice to keep HR and management honest regarding the company’s sexual harassment policy.
Once a complaint has been made, a business needs to have a consistent policy toward discipline and corrective action. This can’t be a one-size-fits-all policy. Sometimes a simple training is enough to deal with an event. Other times, the offending employee should be fired on the spot. But the correct combination of corrective action and discipline needs to be consistent.
All of this can seem difficult when you are a new company just trying to get by, but successful businesses and their owners and managers need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Ignore harassment policies at your peril.