5 Tips for Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Retail

Recent news cycles are, sadly, dominated by reports of sexual harassment. Across industries, women and men are sharing stories of exploitation. According to the Harvard Business Review, 98% of organizations in the United States have a sexual harassment policy. Yet, harassment continues to exist in the workplace. This means current policies are failing to stop the very problem they are designed to address.

The time has come to rethink how organizations approach and deal with harassment. To help you, we have prepared 5 tips to get you moving in the right direction.

1. Recognize sexual harassment is happening

You may think your organization doesn’t have a problem because you do not have a prevalence of sexual harassment reports. Seventy percent (70%) of workers do not report harassment for fear of losing their jobs, fear of retaliation (i.e. poor shift hours, assigned to more dangerous tasks, poor performance reviews), or the belief that nothing will be done to stop the harassment.

Sexual harassment claims are most prevalent in industries with stark power imbalances. Between 2005 – 2015, the largest percentage of harassment charges came from food service and accommodation industries including full-service restaurants, QSRs, c-stores, recreational facilities, hotels, and inns. Other top industries are retail trade, health care, and manufacturing.

If your organization falls into one of the industries above, you can assume harassment is occuring whether it is reported or not. The first step toward protecting your workers and your company is to recognize that harassment can happen and to be preemptive in identifying and dealing with it.

2. Have a clear definition of sexual harassment in your policy

It is important to have a clear definition of what harassment is and what it isn’t. For instance, the US Department of Labor defines two main types of unlawful harassment:

1. Quid Pro Qua Harassment

This type of harassment typically has the pattern “If you do this, I will do that for you,” or “If you do not do this, the consequence will be that.”

This kind of harassment generally results in employment decisions (termination, promotion, opportunity) based upon whether or not the employee accepts or rejects unwelcome sexual advances.

2. Hostile Work Environment Harassment

Unwelcome conduct of co-workers, supervisors and/or customers (or anyone in the workplace) whose conduct creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile atmosphere for a targeted employee.

When crafting your definition and policy, be sure to provide concrete examples of both unacceptable and acceptable behavior. Use plain language and avoid legal jargon.

Also, use culturally relevant and specific language to define behavior and remove subjectivity. For example, the Harvard Business Review recommends adding language such as, “Sexual harassment is a form of predatory sexual behavior in which a person targets other employees.” By using terms like “predatory” and “target” instead of “perpetrator” and “victim” (which have known cultural associations with certain genders) companies can reshape how employees interpret policy to encourage policy adoption.

Even with a specific definition, be aware there could be certain incidents of sexual harassment that don’t fall neatly into your company’s definition. These incidents shouldn’t be ignored as they can be indicative of a more widespread, unconscious bias.

According to Fortune, examples of this type of harmful bias can include: not addressing women or minorities in a meeting room, asking women about their family life during the interview process, ordering only alcoholic drinks at company functions in the presence of pregnant employees, or asking female employees to take notes, order food, and perform admin tasks that are not part of their job description and are not asked of their male colleagues.

Any of these examples can point to an underlying, systemic problem in the company culture that should be dealt with sooner rather than later.

3. Communicate, distribute, and display sexual harassment policies

It is important to communicate and distribute your policy across a number of channels so that no one is left unaware. Communication should include:

– how sexual harassment incidents are to be reported, what method should be used (face to face, in writing), and who incidents should be reported to (manager, HR representative, union contact)
– detailed step-by-step process as to how incidents are to be handled and how the organization will protect the employee from retaliation
– a clear set of potential outcomes that will count as resolution
– a clear set of consequences for inappropriate and predatory behavior
– language to empower bystanders to report predatory sexual behavior so that the responsibility for a healthy company culture is felt by all employees

For industries that work closely with customers/clients in a one-on-one fashion (i.e. massage therapists, patient exams, in-home services, tutoring, physical and personal training) your harassment policy and behavior expectations should be communicated with all customers/clients/patients.

Distribute your sexual harassment policy to all new employees and to all employees yearly as well as to new customers/clients/patients where applicable.

Finally, consider the necessary accommodations and assistive technology you need to put in place so that all employees and customers have access to the policy including translations for English as second language employees.

4. Review and repeat

Dealing with harassment and creating an effective policy is not a one and done task. Continue to ask questions. Are policies sufficient? What has worked? What was misinterpreted? What has changed?

Solicit feedback from all levels of the organization. Update and re-distribute policies every year. For retailers, training should also regularly occur for all levels: store employees, managers, district managers, directors, VPs and head office because every level has a different role to play to prevent and resolve sexual harassment.

5. Follow-up

To ensure your sexual harassment policies are interpreted and enforced correctly, include a section in your store visit checklist specifically geared toward policy review and enforcement. Doing so will give you two advantages for preventing harassment:

  1. By regularly discussing your harassment policy during store visits employees will understand that it is a priority for the organization.
  2. This works toward the goal of not just stopping harassment but creating a company culture that treats all employees, at every level, with respect and dignity.

Not sure what to include? See our sample Sexual Harassment Prevention Checklist for Retailers.

4 thoughts on “5 Tips for Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Retail

  1. Excellent blog! When retail workers find themselves in situations such as sexual harassment, it is important for them to know how to deal with the situation. We at Dear Customers Australia firmly believe that sexual harassment in retail is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed. No one deserves to be harassed and everyone deserves to work in a safe environment.

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