My first job after graduate school was working for the U.S. federal government in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). A few months into the job, a woman air traffic controller sued her boss and co-workers in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for creating an offensive, intimidating, and hostile work environment at the tune of $1 million. It still makes me cringe to think about what they did, they managed to flash pornographic photos across her computer screen while she was making sure airplanes were flying and landing safely. OPM mandated sexual harassment training for all supervisors and managers in the FAA and I designed and facilitated the first-ever sexual harassment training for the federal government. That was in the 1980s. I wish I could say that we have learned a lot since then, but the workplace is still rampant with sexual harassment claims and lawsuits.

On January 9, 2006, the largest sexual harassment lawsuit ever, at $1 billion, was filed in Manhattan against Dresdner Klienwort Wasserstein Services, the American branch of Dresdner Bank of Germany. The complaint cites lewd behavior toward women, entertainment of clients at a strip club, and examples of reduced opportunities for women who returned to the job after maternity leave. The suit makes it clear that sexual harassment occurs in all types of companies and at all levels of business.

Sexual harassment in the workplace presents an ongoing and growing risk to businesses. From a purely business perspective, a company stands to gain if it acts proactively. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. From my 20 years of experience, here are five tips for eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace.

  1. Act before a problem occurs. Failure to adopt a proactive and aggressive stance on sexual harassment can result in costly lawsuits, and in a loss of employee morale, a decline in productivity, and an erosion of a company's public image. It is much less expensive to implement sexual harassment policies and training than it is to be involved in one sexual harassment lawsuit.
  2. Implement policies. 2005 brought two high-profile cases involving women who were deemed "too sexy" for their jobs. Harvard librarian Desiree Goodwin, who holds two advanced degrees from Cornell University, charged that she was passed over for a promotion 16 times because of her attire and physical attractiveness. Meanwhile, Caterina Bonci, a Roman Catholic religion teacher, said she was fired from her job at a state-run school for being too sexy. Include sexual harassment, discrimination, and dress code policies in your employee manual.
  3. Educate employees. The Supreme Court has made it clear that training employees about sexual harassment is one of the ways to protect a company in a lawsuit. Educate employees about company policies, train supervisors to deal with complaints, and provide all employees with clear examples of inappropriate behavior.
  4. Make it safe to voice complaints. Provide a reporting system and make all employees aware of it. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against an individual for filing or supporting charges of discrimination. Train leaders how to listen and respond appropriately to discrimination complaints.
  5. Hold leaders accountable to model your company values. When leaders fail to live up to your company values, employees become de-motivated and angry. Provide ongoing training, coaching, and review of company leaders.