After 30 years of advising employers, conducting sexual harassment investigations, and defending companies sued for discrimination and harassment, I have developed a list of suspicious behaviors that I see repeatedly among sexual harassers in the workplace.
I don’t think of myself as precogniscent of whether a person is actually a harasser or not prior to investigating a complaint, but I have repeatedly seen what I would call these “red flag” behaviors that certainly make it more likely that a supervisor may be accused of harassment at some point.
From the stories in the press about the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and others, it appears from witness statements that many of these warning signs were present and ignored by their companies before the complaints about their misbehavior finally came to light.
Red flag behaviors that employers should take very serious notice of even before a harassment complaint is filed include:
- Any inappropriate remark at work by a supervisor that has racist, sexist or other prejudiced overtones;
- Criticism directed towards employees of one gender, one race, those of different religious beliefs, etc. and not towards ones of the supervisor’s own gender, race or religion;
- Comments by a supervisor that are often about an employee’s or applicant’s appearance or personal attributes rather than work-related competence;
- A supervisor who verbally hits back aggressively when challenged by someone “beneath” the supervisor;
- Unprofessional online behavior, such as forwarding questionable emails or viewing porn at work;
- Attempts to cover tracks, for example, by using a texting service like Snapchat that quickly destroys messages for what are allegedly work-related conversations;
- Flirting by a supervisor, even if it seems harmless, that makes the object of the flirting uncomfortable;
- A supervisor who complains repeatedly about his/her marriage and acts like the victim in that relationship;
- Supervisor dating a subordinate;
- Supervisor who can’t be trusted to behave correctly around alcohol, such as during the company Christmas party or softball game;
- Gifts given by a supervisor to a particular subordinate and not to others; and
- The settlement of a prior sexual harassment complaint for an eye-popping $32,000,000 before the employer has to pay to settle five other claims. Let’s just call that one the O’Reilly Factor.
Are you seeing these red flags in your workplace? Don’t ignore them.
When I get reports that a supervisor participates in these behaviors even before there is a harassment complaint, I encourage my client, the employer, to keep a close eye on that supervisor and start immediate coaching to improve the behaviors.
Obviously, if there is a report of sexual or other harassment made about that supervisor, I advise my employers to take that report very seriously and to investigate and take remedial action promptly.
It is true that coworkers and not just managers may also engage in these behaviors and need to be stopped. But when a manager engages in them, the threat to your company is greater because of the legal standards applied when a more powerful supervisor takes detrimental job-related actions against a subordinate.
If you have a suspicious supervisor in your midst, at the very least you should quickly confront those red flag behaviors and require them to stop. You can require additional sexual harassment training of the employee.
If the manager doesn’t acknowledge the behaviors are unacceptable and immediately improve, then it is time for disciplinary action so that the supervisor (and his victims) understand that you are serious. You can consider a demotion, a pay cut, taking away supervisory duties, a written warning, a performance improvement plan or even termination.