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Small-company CEOs Can Be Accused of Sexual Harassment, Too

Photo of Rita Risser

Rita Risser

I am especially pleased to welcome Rita Risser as a guest writer – not just because her post about sexual harassment is this blog’s first guest post, but because I have had the pleasure of knowing, and staying in touch with, Rita ever since we met at Boalt Hall.

As CEO of a small company, you may imagine that the recent resignation of HP’s CEO has no relevance to you and your organization. Think again.

Whenever employees or contractors are let go, they are more likely to bring claims for harassment, whistle-blowing and more. The worse the economy, the less likely they are to find other jobs and the more incentive they have to pursue alternative sources of income through lawsuits.

How can you protect yourself and your company?

  1. Have strong policies against harassment, discrimination and corporate malfeasance. Policies may not prevent bad behavior, but courts consider them evidence of your good faith.
  2. Your policies should include requirements and processes for employees to file internal complaints. In many cases, the courts will not allow employees to sue without first filing those complaints and giving you an opportunity to resolve the situation.
  3. Have mandatory training for all managers and supervisors. Again, training may not stop bad actors, but the U. S. Supreme Court has held that training shows the employer?s good faith. That means a case could be thrown out, or even if it goes to trial you will not be liable for punitive damages.
  4. Make sure the training is effective. Getting the cheapest, fastest online training that employees can run in the background while working is not the kind of training that will help you. In fact, it could hurt, by showing you don?t care. Fortunately, there are web-based alternatives that are engaging while still respecting your time.
  5. Enforce your policies. Sometimes this is the hard part. You have a brilliant manager or engineer who has violated your policies. What do you do? Termination (or forced resignation) usually should not be the first step in enforcement. A written warning may be all that is required. But gross violations of company standards are grounds for immediate termination. And even relatively minor infractions may justify firing if they are committed by the people entrusted with enforcement.
  6. If employees threaten to sue, or say they feel they have been harassed or otherwise treated unfairly, do not ignore them. Contact your HR or legal person immediately. Incidentally, having training even after a complaint has been filed has been held to protect a company from punitive damages.

The last thing most start-up founders want to think about is Human Resource policies and training. But having some well-drafted policies in place and a few hours of essential training will go a long way to protecting the company from costly lawsuits.

Rita Risser is Vice President of Fair Measures, Inc., which provides web workshops on preventing harassment and employee lawsuits.

Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law? +1 510 547-0545? dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer directly.

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