Harassment allegations are in the headlines far too often these days, putting big names and companies in the spotlight for unfavorable reasons. In light of these recent events, we reached out to experts on the topic to learn more about the harassment training and protocols that should be in place to protect retail businesses and their employees.

Defining Harassment

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented focus on and sensitivity to workplace sexual harassment issues,” said Mark Kluger, founding partner at Kluger Healey. “The public is seeing many high profile individuals losing their jobs and experiencing the destruction of their reputations and credibility.”

In order to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, we first have to be aware of what it is. “Many employees are not fully aware of what constitutes sexual harassment,” said Sayeed Islam, assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, and a human capital consultant for Talent Metrics specializing in selection, compensation, training and organizational development.

A form of gender discrimination, sexual harassment is created by unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other behaviors of a sexual nature, when those behaviors are made a condition of employment, the basis for employment decisions or otherwise unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job.

According to Islam, there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo (sexual favors in exchange for some workplace benefit) and hostile work environment (an environment with offensive comments, remarks, or actions).

Other forms of discrimination in the workplace, including but not limited to race, age and religion, can make for an uncomfortable and hostile work environment for both employees and customers as well.

“When it comes to running a fair and equal business, where employees feel safe and comfortable coming to work every day, eliminating unconscious bias and anything related to sexual harassment is incredibly important for maintaining a professional work culture as well as avoiding some pretty costly and damaging lawsuits,” said Nate Masterson, a human resources representative for Maple Holistics.

While a lawsuit is of concern, Islam stresses that there are greater detrimental effects on productivity and company culture due to the acceptance of sexual harassment.

Preventative Measures

Just as your employees go through sales and product training, the experts say that it is imperative that they participate in harassment and discrimination training as well. This is where human resources departments and consultants can be valuable resources.

“The most control that small businesses have over their employees in terms of harassment is in terms of hiring and education,” Masterson said.

Serving as a trusted partner in the fight against harassment and discrimination in the workplace, human resources departments can develop and facilitate company-wide training to define what sexual harassment is and what the company policy is regarding harassment.

Kimer says good training should involve interactive exercises where employees start to understand and embrace their own diversity, as well as their coworkers’. He recommends training include scenario exercises of situations that could actually occur with customers and coworkers in the store to make the training practical.

Kimer notes on his website, totalengagementconsulting.com, that diversity in the workplace is a given, but inclusion is the hard work of making sure everyone is welcomed and valued in the workplace. According to Kimer, employee resource groups (ERGs), or affinity groups, are a good resource to bring employees together around a common constituency factor and help make them feel more comfortable and included in the workplace. These affinity groups also provide activities such as professional and social networking, mentoring and community involvement.

But as most of us know, at many small businesses, employees wear multiple hats—often assisting with everything from sales and marketing to administrative work, and as a result, some small business are operating without a designated human resources department.

“Often, smaller companies are not going to have as detailed HR policies as larger companies and won’t have a staff member who focuses almost full time on the harassment topic,” Kimer said.

When it comes to conducting proper harassment training in the workplace, the experts recommend that small businesses that operate without a human resources department bring in a human resources consultant to conduct training.

“I recommend that small business looking to strengthen their preventative infrastructure invest in an HR consultant to conduct training sessions (and perform any attendant policy work),”said Mirande Valbrune, an employee relations and compliance (ER) professional with an employment law background.

Before deciding to have an untrained company employee attempt to conduct these training sessions, Valbrune urges companies to strongly consider the costs of having inadequate preventative measures in place.

“The urge may be strong to try to cut corners by having someone internally, like a manager, conduct these training sessions,” she said.