Building a team · Company Building

What is the best way to approach a sexual harassment complaint at my startup?

Nishant Dogra UI/UX Designer at Blog Sparks Network, Inc

November 22nd, 2016

Just hired a new biz dev person. Over the weekend, he sent some messages that were inappropriate to one of my existing employees. He asked to take the conversation off Slack and asked if they could hang out (she said, "sure as friends in work context"), referred to her as a milf (ugh...), and asked if he could tell her a secret (she refused) My employee handled it well and didn't let it get out of hand. I've seen the evidence of the texts in question. The employee came to me in confidence (I'm one of the founders) and told me she really doesn't want to cause problems with the team. I'm really upset by this guy's behaviour and I want to fire him immediately. If I do, she'll know and it will be a violation of the trust she placed in me. So what do I do? Do I fire him? Kick his ass? Get them in a room with a HR rep and talk it out? Hold a "how to recognize sexual harassment seminar"? The employee in question has made it clear that it's not a big deal and she knows how to deal with it, but fact is she shouldn't have to deal with it and I want to make it clear that these things aren't acceptable in the company we're building.

Steve Getman Executive and business consultant

November 22nd, 2016

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not an attorney.. You mentioned you had an HR person, they should be involved and perhaps lead the investigation/conversation.

Given that you are in management and have been made aware of the complaint you have to take action to ensure that the inappropriate behavior stops. Otherwise you face potential liability both as a company and potentially personally. At least that's how it is in California.

You don't have to fire the guy, sometimes a conversation will do it. It's also possible that having someone come in and doing sexual harassment training will cause him to get a clue. You may be able to do that without betraying her trust.

While I understand not wanting to break confidence with the female employee you don't really have much choice but to do something. Consider this: if he's harassing her, what's to say he isn't doing the same to another employee (or will in the future to one you haven't hired yet) or even a potential customer? Great that she knows how to handle it but someone else might not. In any case, once you do take action, follow up with her to make sure the problem has been handled.

My opinion - legally or not, you have an obligation to provide a working environment where unwanted sexual advances and other inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated.

Irwin Stein Very experienced (40 years) corporate,securities and real estate attorney.

November 22nd, 2016

If you think about it, you know that talking to this person is unlikely to get the result that you want. In California and most of the US the company will be liable if you do not put an end to it. This guy is new and somewhat aggressive. Send a message to existing employees that this behavior will not be tolerated and that if someone complains, you have their back. Fire him.

Tom DiClemente Management Consulting | Interim CEO/COO | Coach

November 23rd, 2016

I have never had a case of sexual harassment that I did not first confirm and then deal with permanently ASAP, in some cases within hours. I have never had a case where I did not fire the harasser, again, at times within hours of the event.

You can not let this simply be put aside because it will fester in the company, and there will likely be a recurrence. You have to explain to your employee that you need to take action. You can consult your HR person and/or your attorney on the best way to proceed but the actions you describe indicate that you need to proceed quickly.

Mark Shaw CEO at NEOS HR

November 22nd, 2016

Nishant.  I would look at getting rid of the person as soon as possible.  In my experiene for this sort of behaviuor to have happened so quickly is indicative that this is somewhat 'normal behaviour' for him.  I appreciate I do not have the facts and cannot know all the appropriate details.  While I live in Australia, I am happy to set up a quick teleconference of Skype and give you my guidance.  Best wishes

Jim Falvey General Counsel & Advisory Board Member at Green Key Technologies

November 22nd, 2016

In this context (sexual harassment), there's no such thing as employee privacy, i.e., the person who came to you "in confidence" can't have expectations of privacy. The LAW  requires that you take certain steps once you know about something like this.

 If you have an HR person/dept, definitely forward the matter to them.  They should know what to do (investigate, analyze and  make a decision).  The "bad" actor may not lose his job.  It depends on a number of things like how have you handled these complaints in the past if, God forbid, this isn't your first complaint, what's the guy's history as to these things (has he done anything like this in the past), etc.?

If you don't have HR folks, then refer the matter to your in-house attorney.  If you don't have that, then you'll probably want to reach out to an employment law counsel, who can help walk you thru the steps (including an investigation that is documented).

By the way, you're going to need to adopt a strong anti-harassment policy to put into your employee handbook. Make sure everyone gets the policy, has training on the policy and, of course, be sure to enforce it going forward.  

Good luck.  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions (jimfalvey (at) yahoo (dot) com).

Dane Madsen Organizational and Operational Strategy Consultant

November 22nd, 2016

You must take action now to protect your business. You must preserve the evidence and take notes of your conversation with the target employee. You must then terminate the offender. If you do not, when this happens again, and it will happen again, you will have a full blown HR crises and lawsuit on your hands for allowing it. Dane Madsen 206.900.5852 Mobile Sent from my mobile device. Forgive typographical and grammatical errors.

Michael Burack

November 23rd, 2016

One rotten apple can spoil the barrel...Stop this person before he does something big and do not worry about the "trust" issue....She will be grateful although we do not know if she was in some subtle or other way complicit...The guy has more serious issues than you can know @ this point  and she may as well....Fire him watch her...He has probably been through this before and is expecting definitive action..These situations are not black and white.

Marvin Schuldiner Problem Solver at Sanns, LLC

November 23rd, 2016

You need to terminate the harasser.  "It's ok and I can deal with it" will turn into an EEOC charge when things sour.  Immediately document everything that happened. Let your attorney and HR Manager handle the paperwork and termination process.  You said you just hired him, so presumably he's still in a probationary period?  Get a policy in place that forwards the culture you are trying to develop.

Ankit Manglik CFO Travelspice

November 25th, 2016

I have handled a few of these cases. I would suggest you talk to the employee and tell her she should report it formally to you so that you can take action. Tell her its important for her to take action else the person would repeat the behavior with someone else.

This you could communicate in an email also. This has two advantages it protects you as founder in case the employee decides to follow a legal route in the future and it also sets a precedence in the company about the right behavior.

As a further action, you should do a communication session on sexual harassment in the office.

Lydia Sugarman Entrepreneur. CEO + Non-Technical Founder. Seeker. Thinker. Drinker of bourbon.

November 25th, 2016

You've received excellent advice in all the comments, so there's not much to add. I thought I'd just weigh in with an observation from the female perspective. 

It took courage for your employee to come to you with her report. If the team are all or predominantly men, there is always a fear of backlash. Maybe she was even protecting her position in the company and with you just in case her complaint was downplayed or dismissed. That's very well also the reason she wanted to keep it confidential and insisted she knows how to handle this creep.

These are all conjectures but they are common thoughts that run through your head when coming to your boss with a report like this.

Congratulations to you as a great boss and founder who wants to take the correct and right actions in this. The recommendation to bring in HR is very wise. All the recommendations to fire this loser are correct. I'd've probably fired him instead of posting your questions here! :-)