In 2017, the “me too” hashtag exploded across social media as women — and men — recounted instances in which they were sexually harassed. More than half of American women have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances from men, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in October 2017. Per the poll’s findings, approximately 33 million American women have been sexually harassed in work-related incidents.
With the issue dominating major media outlets toward the end of the year, small business employers — including HVAC contractors — are advised to take the time to review current sexual harassment policies in place, or, if they don’t have a policy, consider implementing one.
“This is a serious and timely topic,” said Steffan Busch, recruiting and workforce development coach, Nexstar Network. “People are a company’s greatest asset, and it’s important for these companies to emphasize that sort of behavior is not tolerated and that your place of business is not a hostile work environment.”
The best thing HVAC companies can do is have a sexual harassment policy in place and provide training on it to employees, Busch noted.
“If you’re rolling it out for the first time, provide training to the entire staff,” he said. “Then, as you hire new folks down the line, have them go through training, and have all your employees sign off on that training. If allegations do arise, make sure you conduct an investigation, document it, and take the appropriate action.”
Busch said contractors should always have an employment labor law attorney vet a written policy.
“Basically, the key elements of the policy should define what sexual harassment is, specify actions that are considered inappropriate, such as unwelcome sexual advances, a request for sexual favors, quid pro quo situations that would entail telling an employee that any change to employment status is contingent upon sexual favors, etc. It’s important to conduct reviews of current policies and provide quick trainings to employees to emphasize that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Pam Krivda, human resources and organizational management consultant for Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), recently issued an alert to HARDI HR subscribers.
“As the list of high-profile sexual harassment claims continues to grow, it is likely that employers outside of the entertainment industry, media, and politics will be the next targets,” she warned. “Employees who feel that they have complaints dating back years and years are coming forward, and HARDI subscribers must be prepared before taking any action.”
Krivda recommended taking a number of precautions, including ensuring harassment policies are up to date and not to rely on a policy found on the internet; conduct harassment training for managers and supervisors if you have not done so within the past year, and keep a record of who attended; ensure those not attending received an adequate make-up session; meet with key managers and HR officials to determine whether they are aware of any employees who have been engaging in inappropriate behavior; and confirm employees have effective options for communicating workplace concerns.
There is a huge risk involved in sexual harassment allegations, and having a policy in place protects HVAC companies on a completely different level, according to Vicki LaPlant, owner, VLE Enterprises in Pottsboro, Texas, and Service Roundtable consultant.
“A few weeks ago, a contractor partner of Service Nation Alliance experienced a sales person being totally inappropriate with women in the office, leaving them notes and reaching out and touching a pregnant woman’s stomach — just totally inappropriate stuff,” LaPlant said. “Fortunately one of the women in the office finally came to him. That contractor could have been in a lot of trouble. He could have been sued by the women in the office. And, of course, he had to let this guy go.
“This particular contractor did not have a sexual harassment policy in place in his employee handbook, which left him exposed to legal action from the women this happened to as well as the employee who was let go,” she continued. “Because the owner didn’t witness any behavior, it was all based on what other people said. You just need to have a policy in place of how it will be handled, and make sure everybody knows at the first sign, mostly to minimize risk.”
Every HVAC contractor should consult an attorney in their state, since the language will need to vary depending on state laws, she suggested.
“The critical thing is to consult an attorney, get it in the employee handbook, and communicate it to everyone in the company,” LaPlant said. “The best way to communicate the addition of the policy or any revisions is to hold a company meeting after it is written to go over it, see if there are any questions, and make it perfectly clear that this is not acceptable. They also need to make it clear that if anyone has any concerns whatsoever, they need to come to the owner immediately.”
John Alan Doran, a partner at Sherman & Howard LLC, has over 25 years of experience counseling and successfully representing employers in all facets of labor and employment law matters. According to Doran, companies shouldn’t be so quick to fire an employee based on allegations alone.
“It’s critically important for employers to react but not overreact to the [‘me too’] movement,” he said. “When confronted with a harassment claim, an employer should not rush to judgment, nor should an employer cave amidst the weight of numerous complainants. The key was, and still is, to conduct a very prompt, thorough investigation that reaches solid conclusions based on the facts available.
“The ‘me too’ movement is not limited to high-profile names in the news,” Doran continued. “The movement, by its very nature, is one of empowerment. Alleged victims of harassment now see an environment conducive to calling out an alleged harasser and less receptive to victim-shaming. This empowerment will invariably work itself into most places of employment.”
Steve Schmidt, president, Frederick Air Inc., Frederick, Maryland, said having a sexual harassment policy in place is very important.
“Just like any type of insurance, you need to have policies and a plan in place before something happens,” he said. “You don’t want to wait until you have a problem or crises before you start thinking about what you would do should a situation occur.”
Frederick Air’s policy clearly states sexual harassment is unlawful, and the company is firmly against it. Schmidt said the policy also states that sexual harassment is hard to define, but it gives examples of what would be considered sexual harassment and very specific instructions on what to do and who to contact if an employee feels they have been a victim.
But, while the company has a policy in place, it does not conduct sexual harassment training for employees, Schmidt explained.
“It’s just never been an issue,” he said. “It’s a good practice to hire for character for many reasons. One additional reason would be to protect your business from any inappropriate behavior. Hiring the right people with a proper stance on respecting others will go a long way toward preventing a problem.”
In addition, Schmidt said it’s important to treat all people with the utmost respect in all areas because it sets a good example that applies to all situations.
“I think it would be shortsighted to ignore the potential of a problem just because you think it would never happen in your company,” he said.
Budget Heating, Cooling & Plumbing, St. Peters, Missouri, doesn’t have a separate sexual harassment policy; however, the topic is covered in its employee handbook, according to Amy Davis, vice president of the company.
“For a lot of employers out there, a lot of this stuff is mentioned in the employee handbook, but my interpretation of the way our world is evolving is a lot of what we say and the words we use are open to interpretation by the employee,” she said.
The company is in the process of reworking its employee handbook, and, with all of the media attention on sexual harassment recently, Davis feels the company needs to update its policy.
“It’s something we need to protect ourselves from and be aware of,” she said. “We do have women in our field, and understanding the majority of our personnel are male, I think it’s important to have it laid out there for everybody, have it clearly defined, and, if it occurs, what to do about it.”
LaPlant added one last thought for contractors to consider.
“You don’t want to make it so that people can’t talk to or joke with one another, but, yet, you have to make sure that everyone understands that there is a line which cannot be crossed,” she said. “You’ve got to use common sense in applying it. Because unfortunately, the line isn’t always as black and white as we would like to make it.”
Publicaiton date: 1/29/2018