Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports a decrease in the number of overall charges filed, the agency saw a 13.6 percent increase in workers alleging sexual harassment from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018.
The rise is a combination of the EEOC’s increased focus on combatting workplace harassment and the momentum of the #MeToo movement, which has increased awareness of the issue and encouraged more workers to talk about—and report—harassment.
Although the type and level of harassment differs from industry to industry, which means solutions may differ, pest management companies, like most service industries, are taking steps to minimize sexual or any other type of harassment in the workplace through clear policies that define reporting and investigative processes.
“In my opinion, pest management companies must take proactive steps to prevent harassment at all levels in our own workplaces as well as other environments in which our employees work,” says R. Brett Madden, Esq., president of Aviaway. It is easy to “keep your head in the sand” and avoid addressing the issue until you need it, but that is not the right approach, he adds.
Creating a company culture that includes awareness of the risk of harassment and encourages people to speak up is critical, says Madden. “I believe that a culture of respect that allows people to freely speak and be heard when they believe they are being treated unfairly or harassed is important,” he says.
In pest management, this means that companies must be concerned about employees even when they are working at a customer’s site. Although most people assume that sexual harassment policies are designed to protect women, Madden points out that harassment policies should not define genders. “I don’t like to differentiate between male and female because harassment of all types—sexual or bullying—affects everyone,” he explains.
If an employee reports potential harassment, Madden’s policies are clear about the process. In one example, a sales representative reported feeling uncomfortable when visiting an account. “When we investigated, which included talking to the customer, we discovered that both parties misunderstood the situation and there was no harassment,” he says. However, because employee safety is his company’s main concern, the employee was asked if she still wanted to handle the account. “In these situations, if the sales rep wants to stay with that account, we always add another person to accompany the employee on site visits—no exception,” he adds. “My obligation is to provide a safe work environment.”
A good policy not only encompasses as many situations and provides details on reporting processes as possible, but also ensures that reporting a potential harassment situation will not result in punitive actions against the reporting employee, says Court Parker, CEO of Bug Busters. “Although typical reporting processes in a company require an employee to report an incident to his or her supervisor, be sure to include another way to report—to an HR manager, a supervisor’s manager, or another company leader—if the harassment is coming from the supervisor, he suggests.
Be sure, too, that employees understand that your company does not tolerate harassment—even from customers, points out Parker. “I am prepared to fire a customer if my employees are mistreated,” he says. When one of Parker’s employees was bullied on the phone, Parker went to the commercial customer—a construction contractor—and told him how one of the contractor’s employees treated the Bug Busters’ employee. “The increased awareness of harassment in the workplace has even changed the ‘good-ole-boy’ companies, and they are not tolerating harassment of any type,” he adds.
Any sexual harassment policy should be included in a new employee’s orientation along with other company policies. In addition to reviewing policies at orientation, it is also important to review updated policies or share information throughout the year at company meetings, through emails or newsletters, and as part of ongoing weekly or monthly training sessions.
This is not a policy that can be developed and forgotten, points out Parker. “The commitment to a safe workplace that is free from harassment must be integrated into corporate culture,” he says. “We have a very diverse company, in fact, six out of the 10 people in company leadership positions are women.”
Although it is good policy, the number of women in leadership and other roles in Bug Busters, has led to some thoughtful decisions related to harassment policies. “When we investigate a harassment policy, we interview everyone who may have been involved or witnessed the harassment, review video, emails or texts that may document the harassment—or clear someone of the charge,” says Parker. “When we conduct the interviews, it is never one-on-one,” he says. Instead, an additional person who is the same gender as the person being interviewed is present. “When conducting these investigations, it is a good idea to have someone else present to witness the interview, and if the additional person is the same gender as the person being interviewed, the situation is more comfortable.”
If the incident is overt, physical or violent, the employee will be dismissed, points out Parker. “If the decision is made to keep the employee, with additional counseling provided, we do ask the employees if they can continue to work together,” he says. Offering options to transfer to another office should be offered if possible, he adds.
Although templates for harassment policies can be found in many places, it is best to have a consultant, attorney or insurance company review the policy. Although EEOC regulations are national, each state’s requirements may differ.
“Your insurance company can serve as a good resource for harassment policies that are current,” points out Madden. Because enforcement and awareness of sexual harassment as well as other types of harassment do change over time, it is important to review your policies on a regular basis. “The harassment policy you developed 10 years ago may not describe specific steps such as reporting, investigation and transparency of findings to protect your company, or qualify for insurance coverage, he adds.
The key is not to be “passive” when it comes to harassment policies, says Madden. Be sure your company’s practices communicate the importance of employee safety everywhere—even at “non-traditional” work locations, such as trade shows. “We are at a lot of trade shows and networking events where people are attending parties with alcohol and may relax and forget that they are still working and still subject to our policies,” he says. “One way we make sure everyone understands that this is a working event, is that we always send a manager with the sales representatives, customer service personnel or technicians at the event.” He adds, “Taking the right steps to minimize the risk of harassment means following through on your commitment and taking steps to demonstrate your commitment.”
BY SHERYL S. JACKSON