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September 28, 2021

Sex scandals in the workplace — What's the big deal?

Last week, Mark Hurd settled a lawsuit brought on by his former employer Hewlett-Packard after he was hired to help lead rival Oracle. You might remember Hurd resigned as HP CEO in August, following an internal investigation that found he falsified expense forms to conceal a relationship with a former TV reality show contestant turned marketing consultant, Jodie Fisher. Fisher had charged Hurd with sexual harassment (they eventually settled out of court).

The drama that has played over the last couple of months — which has cost HP millions of dollars and tarnished its reputation — underscores the need for clearly-stated and communicated policies as it relates to sexual harassment specifically and harassment and violence generally.

We have all heard of managers who were overly “huggy”, that made sexually crude and suggestive comments, and pursued personal relationships with colleagues even when those feelings weren’t reciprocated. Some people, even today, justify such behaviour, arguing that we’ve become hypersensitive or to politically correct to such matters in the workplace. The fact is such behaviour when left unchecked can lead to toxic and highly-charged workplace environments, lost productivity and, of course, costly litigation.
This is why it’s so important an organization, regardless of its size, spell out in plain language what is and what isn’t acceptable as well as the consequences should any employee be in violation of those terms, not only with fellow colleagues but customers and, as in the case of Hurd, suppliers. It’s important to have every employee read the policy and sign it. And employees, including executives need to take some training to make sure they clearly understand the policy and what steps are in place should an individual feel they are being harassed.

Organizations should also have someone in place, ideally an ombudsman, who can investigate such conflicts in an independent and neutral manner. Whether that person be an ombudsman or someone on staff designated to handle these issues, the person must be able to take the findings of the investigation to someone in the organization who can enforce the policy.  In the case involving Hurd, it would have been necessary for the issue to go to the Board of Directors.

Ultimately, HP found that Hurd didn’t violate the company’s sexual harassment policy (although he did violate its ethic protocols as the result of falsifying expenses, which is why he was dismissed). Still, the case serves as an important reminder that sexual harassment in the workplace should never be taken lightly, and an organization needs to be ready with a clearly communicated and accessible policy to deal with the issue.  In many cases, if an internal policy is in place that works, as it should, the issue may not result in a hit to an organization’s reputation and significant financial liability.

-- by MSN Money guest blogger Marshall Schnapp B.A., LL.B. LL.M.

Marshall is the Principal at Solution ADR, a conflict management firm created with the recognition that workplace conflicts can be managed effectively to improve workplace productivity, maintain employee satisfaction, comply with legislative requirements and reduce exposure to lengthy and costly litigation.



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