Companies today need to make sure their practices and policies create a safe work environment for all employees. The consequences of a sexual harassment claim, as an example, can be expensive and distracting for startup founders, and damaging to a startup’s culture.
Krista Cabrera and Carrie Hoffman of Foley & Lardner shared important information for startups on how to protect your company and your employees as part of the livestream for startup founders series hosted by 4thly and Foley and moderated by Bret Waters.
The key takeaways were:
- Sexual harassment training and having a policy is about setting the tone from the top. Having a handbook in place and having an HR professional sets the tone that the company takes the issue of harassment seriously. Especially in some startup environments, where it can be more casual, it’s possible to get really lax around these issues, and it’s very important not to.
- When a startup gets to the stage where the founder wants to sell the company or do an IPO, there is a level of due diligence that will uncover misbehavior. Lawsuits or threatened lawsuits can create serious issues.
- Employment law is state-by-state, and it’s common to have remote employees who could live anywhere in the country. Where your primary place of business matters, but where your employees are located is one of the most important factors when you’re talking about harassment policies. Familiarize yourself with the state laws where you have employees. There is also federal law to contend with, which applies to everyone, regardless of where you are in the country.
- The issue that gets so many companies in trouble is the failure to investigate. In California, that’s a standalone claim – failure to conduct an investigation can get a company sued. The investigation needs to fit the allegations.
- If the allegation is serious, a company should consider bringing in an outside investigator who is a neutral third party. Particularly in a startup, where most people who work together are friendly, having an outside person investigate can be helpful in conducting an effective investigation. Especially if it’s an allegation against a C-Suite person. Paying an outside investigator may seem like a lot of money, but it’s far cheaper than settling a complaint or litigating a lawsuit.
- When person makes a sexual harassment complaint, it’s looked at by the jury and by the court from the perspective of the victim, not the harasser, so intent isn’t required. You might say something that you think isn’t a big deal, but what matters is the way it might impact someone. So in the workplace, just be extra sensitive to that fact. Just because something doesn’t offend you or your best friend, it might offend a coworker, so it’s best to just not say it.