Sexual Harassment Warning Signs

SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - Because of the high-stress, low-structure environments of dot-coms and other startups, managers should be on the lookout for symptoms of sexual harassment. In this, the first of a two-part series, we identify some red flags.

Legal researchers are finding that budding dot-coms and startups, focused on lightning-speed time to market, are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment. According to Chuck Samel, general manager of Legal Knowledge Development at Legal Research Network, in Los Angeles, emerging companies fall into murky waters because they generally fail to hire HR professionals early to assist with hiring and policy setting; they fail to educate employees early on; employees tend to be less experienced and less likely to have had training; casual environments can mislead employees to think that anything goes; and very long work hours limit the opportunity for employees to socialize outside of work. Managers should look for the following red flags.

1. Inappropriate behavior

Managers should note inappropriate sexual comments, jokes, flirting, or use of affectionate terms, Samel explains. "A more subtle indication of this is workplace discussion of sexual relationships," Samel says. "When employees that develop friendships at work start to discuss more private or confidential details, it's a sign that the atmosphere is too relaxed."

2. Inappropriate physical contact

Samel says that aside from obviously inappropriate contact, managers should watch for any touching that appears suggestive. Managers should let employees know immediately if something is inappropriate.

3. Sexually explicit materials

According to Samel, dot-coms are seeing more sexually explicit materials in the work area than traditional companies: screen savers, posters, Web sites, and other inappropriate items. "Managers need to take steps to make sure [they are] removed immediately, and that employees are told what's inappropriate," Samel says.

4. Very young employees

Samel says incidents where very young, high-school age employees are hired without unique skills, but possibly with connections to an employee or manager, are a red flag because sexual relationships are usually involved. "There could be exceptions for a genius software engineer, but most of the time there's a bigger problem," Samel says.

5. Staying with co-workers

Samel has noticed more out-of-town employees at dot-coms staying at co-workers' or managers' homes -- something he hasn't seen in established companies. "It would be money well spent by these companies to put employees up in a hotel," Samel says.

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