How Sexual Harassment Affects Small Businesses

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Think you know what sexual harassment in the workplace is?

Local staffing agency Source One Staffing was accused this month of placing female employees in known hostile work environments and then ignoring their claims of misdeeds taking place there.

Marion, Ill.-based Mach Mining has been accused of not hiring a woman at all in the last five years.

For some reason, sexual harassment, in most people's minds, tends to be associated with big businesses. But it affects small businesses, too.

"As an employee-side employment attorney, I see lots of sexual harassment issues in small businesses," says Donna Ballman, a lawyer who works on sexual harassment claims. "Many times, owners or managers see their businesses as their own personal fiefdoms and they don't think the laws apply to them."

And as long as we're reframing sexual harassment, it bears repeating that it isn't always men harassing women. "I've seen women, and men, for that matter, who were terrorized by bosses gone wild," adds Ballman. "You also see owners of small businesses who are so busy they are oblivious to the misdeeds of their managers." Even when it's reported, Ballman noted, the temptation for those who can do something about it tend to not believe it, since the accused bring in so much business it's unthinkable they could so such horrible things.

So how do you avoid such missteps? Employment Attorney Leonard Emma suggests the following: "Small businesses are especially vulnerable because they typically do not establish sexual harassment policies, educate and train employees about sexual harassment in the workplace, investigate claims thoroughly, or take strong corrective action."

As far as the assumption that it affects bigger businesses? That's probably a misconception. Ballman says big corporations "as a rule tend to have zero tolerance for this sort of nonsense. If they have a great HR department, and many do, they will stomp out sexual harassment as soon as it's reported."

Since small businesses are, by their very nature, small, their HR departments tend to have less control since those aforementioned regulations and rules aren't in place. That's the problem, overall: Small companies almost function as families. And it's tempting to look the other way when someone in the family is doing something wrong. And that's a slippery slope.

"If they get away with lesser bad behavior," Ballman says, "They accelerate the behavior. Most won't stop on their own -- someone has to stop them. That puts HR in a tough place."

Might as well be you, as the boss, to stop them then. Right?

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