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Startups and creative enterprises may be too loose for their own good
and flip-flops. Ping-pong tables. Workdays that bleed into evenings,
after-hours e-mails and weekends with employees socializing.
these can be part of the more casual, “flexible” work environments so prized by
startups and creative enterprises. But do such environments blur the lines of
appropriate behavior in a workplace—including what constitutes sexual
and more buttoned-down companies have HR departments that issue written
guidelines and require training to prevent sexual harassment, and that also serve
as a place employees can go if they have complaints.
smaller firms that pride themselves on rejecting traditional corporate culture,
a free-for-all mentality can make sexual harassment harder to identify or
control, said David Lewis, president and CEO of the HR outsourcing and
consulting firm OperationsInc in Norwalk, Conn.
get larger, they institute more rigid and clearly defined policies that make it
easier to see where the line is so you don’t cross it,” Lewis said. But in
smaller, less-traditional companies with no in-house HR function, “it’s sort of
left to social mores and what is considered ‘PC’ [politically correct]
behavior, which is a very subjective standard for many businesses, especially
for those where they wear jeans and work flexibly,” said Lewis, adding that he
deals with such matters on a monthly basis with his clients.
harassment is always a tricky thing to identify, and it’s certainly not limited
to nontraditional workplaces, experts note. The U.S. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal anti-harassment laws,
defines sexual harassment as behavior which “explicitly or implicitly affects
an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work
performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
But the agency also stipulates that it looks at each complaint on a
case-by-case basis, considering both the circumstances and the context in which
the alleged harassment occurred.
view is that you really can’t define it. Even if you look at the EEOC
regulations and [federal laws] defining discrimination and harassment, it comes
down to the fact that harassment is almost always in the eye of the beholder,”
said Laura Kerekes, SPHR, who leads the HR services delivery team at the
ThinkHR in Pleasanton, Calif. That assessment is backed up by a
recent poll conducted for Cosmopolitan
magazine. When asked if they’d been sexually harassed at work, 16 percent of
women who initially said “no” changed their answers to “yes” after being asked
if they’d experienced “sexually explicit or sexist remarks” at work. One in 3
women ages 18-34 said they’d been sexually harassed at work, and one-fourth of
those cited offensive texts or e-mails.
Spring, a labor and employment lawyer specializing in workplace sexual
harassment prevention and litigation, cited two drivers of sexual harassment
complaints. One is a casual work environment; the second is age.
tend to let their guard down more when there’s a looser environment,” said
Spring, a partner with Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP in Sacramento,
Calif. And “there’s a direct correlation,” based on anecdotal evidence, that
potentially harassing behavior occurs more among 20- to 30-year-olds, Spring
added. Part of the reason for that, he said, is that younger people may be more
likely to socialize with co-workers after hours, and may fail to draw the line
between professional and social relationships.
issue can be even tougher to deal with when a company has no in-house HR department
to set standards or deal with complaints. Some executives foolishly try to
avoid the issue by hiring only people who seem open to a relatively ribald work
environment, Lewis said—but those same companies may later find themselves
having to defend against harassment complaints.
recommend setting the tone early and from the top, making it clear what
constitutes unacceptable behavior. When there is no in-house HR department,
management should enlist “key thought leaders” to set the culture, Kerekes
said. And while only three states (Maine, California and Connecticut) require
sexual harassment prevention training for businesses of a certain size, all
companies should consider implementing such training, since firms can still be sued
under federal law for noncompliance, added Beth Zoller, legal editor at the
consulting firm XpertHR.
unsuccessful lawsuit can be damaging to a company—especially for companies
whose primary resource is intellectual property, said former EEOC trial
attorney Steve Paskoff, CEO of workplace and ethics training company ELI Inc.
Clients might be reluctant to do business with a firm distracted by a sexual
harassment lawsuit, he said. And having a “flexible” work environment is no
excuse, he added.
no rule that says that to be a successful entrepreneurial startup, you have to
act like a bunch of high school sophomores,” Paskoff said.
Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in
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