Sexual harassment has long been a serious problem in professional settings, and the design industry, as it has been made clear, is not immune. Below, practitioners and legal experts weigh in on ways to implement a sexual harassment policy to a firm of any size.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the legal definition of sexual harassment describes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Abusers can range from supervisors to coworkers or even to clients and customers.
However, sexual harassment is not an easy concept to define. The law does not prohibit “simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious,” according to the EEOC, but larger gray area exists, encompassing a range of behaviors—such as physical and emotional abuse, retaliation, and bullying—that can occur over a significant period of time and produce a hostile work environment.
“Sexual harassment is about the exploitation of power in the workplace,” says Robert Ottinger, a New York–based employment attorney and former prosecutor who notes that many such actions would be punishable by prison time if committed on the street.
But firms can go beyond the legal definition when creating their own policies. “It’s important to have a zero-tolerance policy and do training so people understand what they should and shouldn’t be doing," says Suzanne Pennasilico, chief human resources officer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in New York. "But it’s even more critical is to create a culture where this behavior isn’t tolerated."
Firms should provide new hires and current employees with anti-harassment policies that require signatures acknowledging receipt and understanding, and also post these policies in communal areas within the workplace and make them available on their intranet.
Codify a System
While many practices require employees to complete training related to sexual harassment—which can range from online courses to in-person seminars with discussions facilitated by human resources departments or outside consultants—only companies in the states of California and Connecticut with more than 50 employees are legally required to do so. However, no firm should wait until an incident occurs to establish a system.
“Sure, there is a legal definition, but we want to work in a place that fosters respect,” says Juli Cook, Assoc. AIA, a partner and chief operating officer at Seattle-based NBBJ. “We can take actions against people if we think they are not are not in line with our company values and how we define a positive workplace.”
For firms with multiple offices, consistency across locations is key. Leadership must establish a clear set of guidelines and a reporting system that engages the leadership within each office. Employers should take immediate and appropriate action in response to harassment, ranging from a warning, to discipline, and to termination.
“Statements, policies, and training programs are good, but modeling the behavior and changing the culture is even more important,” Pennasilico says. “Make sure that the reporting structure is clear and that human resources staff are empowered to make a change and report at the highest level.”
Transparency and Consequences
Often companies keep sexual harassment cases confidential by asking employees to sign arbitration agreements or through other legal means. However, Ottinger believes that keeping such information secret protects and even encourages perpetrators in the long run. “If there’s a resolution of a sexual harassment allegation, it should be made public. The victim should be free to talk about it if they want to,” he says. “There isn’t enough of a deterrent right now. If people were worried about exposure, humiliation, or even prosecution, they might not do it.”
Employees also have individual responsibilities as co-workers. Pennasilico believes in the old adage, "See something, say something." “You can’t be a bystander," she says."Stand up for others who are being victimized."
But, she adds, “We’re seeing the dawn of a new day, and there is the possibility that we can change things to be much more inclusive. If anything, I think all of this coming out in the news has been very helpful because individuals have seen real consequences for their behavior—their legacies are taken away. And what could be worse for an architect?”