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Harassment: how to ensure your company is clean

 21 November 2011      

Harassment has been in the news a lot lately. A venerable university, Pennsylvania State University (commonly called Penn State), our own Royal Canadian Mounted Police, U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain and the Roman Catholic Church are among what seems to be an endless list of individuals, companies and institutions that have been accused of either conducting or condoning such boorish, disgusting behaviour in recent years.

While the perpetrator is in hot water, so is the company or the institution where they work. Even small independent retail stores with relatively small staffs can find themselves entangled in a highly complex, morale destroying situation.

The challenge for the store owner is finding ways to ensure your workplace isn't poisoned by some buffoon. To be clear the store owner, or manager, is liable for the actions of every staff member and can be sued as a result. Not only will your reputation will be in tatters, the costs associated with a harassment case can cripple your company.

Harassment is defined as "a feeling of intense annoyance caused by being tormented."

Earlier in my career while performing a stint as human resources manager, I had to deal with a case of harassment. A buyer was accused of improper contact with his female assistant buyer. Not being one to jump to conclusions, I called two of this person's former assistant buyers to get their views on the situation. I called them from home to ensure privacy. They both confirmed the unwanted sexual attention.

A meeting was held with the buyer in question. He was told a letter was going to be placed in his file for one year. If he changed his behavior it would be removed. Nowadays, this would not be nearly enough. The buyer would be immediately terminated at the least.

I'm sad to report I also experienced those unwanted advances - once from my business law professor and from several colleagues. Thank heaven they knew "no means no" so there was no serious fallout from these incidents. Others may not have been as strong.

The flip side of this issue is some may use the accusation to garner attention or get revenge for some perceived slight.

Based on my experience in several organizations, here's a six-step that will lessen your store's chances of having to face the "funeral march" music of a harassment complaint.

Include the phrase "every employee must be treated with respect at all times" in your mission statement. This must be posted everywhere and be part of your employee employment package that requires a signature of compliance. Like the misuse of company property or discount privileges, harassment is plainly designated as a severance offense.Interview each staff member annually and in private. Listen to all their concerns; particularly the working conditions. In all cases, verify your facts. Get back to the individual about your findings and offer to move the employee to another area of your organization (if unverifiable).If the facts appear true, take decisive action. Do not whitewash or cover-up the problem. If you do that you are tacitly condoning the behavior and are liable for the consequences. Remember this applies to anyone being harassed for any reason (not just sexual harassment in the usual sense) including sexual orientation, religion, colour or background.Never use phrases such as "boys will be boys", "he's of the old school", or "he considers his attentions a compliment". If the attention is unwelcome, stop it at once.Don't be a "toucher". Many managers make the mistake of touching their staff. I don't care whether or not it's just a friendly gesture; it sets a tone which can escalate to discomfort. Unless you're visiting a staff member at a funeral service or some other occasion; keep your hands to yourself.Act like a doctor; don't close your door when having a one-to-one with a member of the opposite sex. A slightly ajar door will give you enough privacy.There isn't a bullet-proof vest that will protect you in all cases, but these steps will ensure you have taken reasonable measures to avert the problem. When in doubt, call your lawyer.

A regular contributor to Home Goods Online, Alixe MacRae is one of this country's best known merchandisers, having held senior positions at a variety of well-known Canadian retailers including Stoney Creek Furniture, Sears Canada and The Bay. She recently started her own business Concierge Relocation ( Her company specializes in move management, especially for those dramatically downsizing seniors and their overwhelmed children.

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