Today’s From The Field contribution could not be more timely — or serious. It came to us the day before news broke of alleged gender discrimination and sexual harassment at a corporate travel agency. In this submission, Databasics CEO Alan Tyson calls on those involved in sending employees on the road to better recognize and prevent such misconduct. We thank him for taking on such a sensitive subject and encourage everyone to join the discussion.
One of the greatest risks of business travel comes from our travel companions. That sexual harassment is an unacceptable condition of work has been broadly acknowledged for some time. Even so, the #MeToo movement has brought a heightened recognition of sexual harassment’s enormous destructiveness, pervasiveness and injustice. In any duty of care program, prevention must be front and center.
Business travel blocks critical situational exits for potential victims. Above all, the standard excuses for declining after-hours invitations lose efficacy. “I can’t go to dinner with you, because … ” becomes awkward. Regardless of how the “because” clause is completed, it sounds very much like, “I don’t like you,” or, “I don’t trust you.” Quite a statement to make to someone you work for. Clearly, the pressure is on to accede to the request.
In general, the risk of sexual harassment is elevated by the unstructured socializing that is inherent in being away from the relative safety of office norms and personal schedules. Under its duty of care, the employer has the obligation to mitigate the risk, but how?
First, the employer must seek to eliminate inadvertent sexual harassment. This happens when the “perp” plausibly doesn’t know any better. She thinks she’s being funny or even complimentary. Or, under stress, she uses demeaning language — not because she intentionally wants to inflict discomfort but because the words are just there, waiting for a chance to come out. Or she thinks, for some reason, that coming up behind someone and massaging his shoulders relieves his stress.
More problematic are unwelcome romantic overtures. Obviously, there are many instances where an overture is appreciated. The difficulty is in knowing the outcome in advance.
The employer, through written policy and training, can ensure that every employee does know better. That includes the lovelorn, who must understand that he is fully responsible for any “misunderstandings” and must, under no circumstances, persist when he has been rebuffed. Some employers actually ban dating between employees. Similar results were achieved by King Canute who thought the sea would recede at his command. While admittedly policies are subject to overreach, there cannot be any ambiguity regarding what constitutes sexual harassment. The employer cannot ensure that the prohibited behaviors don’t occur, but he can take away the excuse of ignorance.
Second, it must be clear not only that the policy will be enforced, but how. This means complaint filing, the investigative process and the consequences of violation must be spelled out. There should be no surprises with respect to company procedures and actions.
This leaves deliberate acts of sexual aggression that range from aggravating, embarrassing and humiliating another employee to coercion and assault. Here, HR’s online learning course and the employee handbook are little help. Not knowing a behavior is wrong isn’t the problem. Still, knowledge of consequences can give an aggressor pause, so policy can provide a degree of mitigation.
Can employers do anything that directly addresses the specific vulnerabilities created by business travel? Employees are together, basically unmoored, without accustomed protections.
I’ve heard suggestions like men and women shouldn’t travel together, should stay at different hotels, shouldn’t eat together and should never drink together. All non-starters. To begin with, sexual harassment is not exclusively inter-gender, so separating men and women is not a complete solution. From an LGBT viewpoint, segregation could actually exacerbate the problem. On the flip side, if all went well, it would favor those of the same gender as the “alpha” employee, since they would have the better opportunity to bond with the boss. None of this takes into account the reason for the trip in the first place: to accomplish some business purpose for which all of the travelers are needed. The team needs to function as a team.
So where are we? I can think of a few things:
1. Do not send employees who have been found to have violated sexual harassment policy out with other employees. If this means they cannot function in their role, find another role for them or terminate them. Imagine the liability where the employer knew the employee was a harassment risk and still sent her out with another employee whom she subsequently victimized.
2. Maintain an online registry of activities. The idea is that employees would be required to record their after-hours itinerary if it involves another employee. It could be as simple as setting up an after-hours itinerary mailbox. I’m not sure how much good this would do, but I feel like it would have material deterrent value. Knowing that the company knows that he is having dinner alone with his assistant might be just enough of a buzz killer for some aggressors.
3. Have a strict alcohol policy for employees travelling on company business. Nobody would dispute that the risk of harassment rises as more alcohol is consumed. A specific drink limit would help employees exercise leadership when they sense that the drinking of others is getting out of hand. Announcing so all can hear, “I’m done. I’ve had my two!” would definitely have an effect. And maybe in enough instances, the desired one.
We need more ideas. Travel increases the vulnerability of employees to each other. How can we get this under control?