How To Deal With Sexual Harassment In Startups?

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Bijan Khosravi , CONTRIBUTOR I cover entrepreneurship and how to build successful startups. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. NEW YORK, 12/09/2017 (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

NEW YORK, 12/09/2017 (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news these days and not learn about a new public figure or company that is wrapped up in a sexual harassment scandal. Politicians and entertainers are at the forefront of many recent accusations, but the business world, including the startup community, isn’t immune to its share of the problem. In fact, the stakes are even higher for young companies when it comes to sexual harassment issues. One chip at the company reputation could kill it before it even gets started.

Sexual harassment is a serious situation and one that should never be taken lightly. As a male who has worked in the startup world for many years and who has also held senior leadership roles in numerous companies, I feel a responsibility for standing up for those have faced harassment.

I also feel a responsibility for educating entrepreneurs about situations that might cause discomfort for colleagues, peers or subordinates—whether intentional or not.

Sexual harassment is not just a woman’s issue. It’s a call for change in the business world that we should all take seriously. Here are some areas where we can start.

Case One—Keep Romance Out of the Business Place

Some 20 years ago, a colleague and friend of mine came to my office to tell me he just met the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen and that he was in love. At that point, he dragged me out of the office to point her out to me. She worked at our company. He told me he met her in a marketing meeting and she was, “looking at [him]. Not with a regular, business look—it was a deep look, an interested look.” Fast-forward six months and my friend married the woman he met in the meeting. They are still happily married today.

Am I saying his interest in the woman was harassment? No, I’m not. Fortunately both my friend and the woman in whom he was interested were both willing parties. That is not always the case. If that same friend came to me with news of a beautiful woman in the office today, I would caution him to be careful and to not try to start a romance in the workplace. The blending of personal and professional lives can create a grey area where perceived or real harassment could occur. That’s why so many companies require workplace romances to be reported to HR and that one or both of the parties in the relationship may be asked to look for employment elsewhere. The risk to the company is just not worth it.

Long-story short? Don’t date co-workers.

Case two—It’s never “Just Drinks

A short while ago, a female CEO that I know well asked for my advice on an uncomfortable situation. She told me she recently met an angel investor who was more interested in her than her company. He asked her to get a drink so he could get to know her better. She felt like he was making a pass, so she “walked away and never looked back.”

This CEO was very upset. The investor has huge business credibility and she felt she was being pressured to go on a date just to help her company. She didn’t think she could report him; after all, he just wanted to “have a drink.” She also didn’t want to meet with him again even though his influence could be a major boon for her company. In this case, it was a total loss/loss situation for this CEO and her business.

Women face this type of situation more often than you might even realize in the startup world. A sales woman is asked to have drinks or dinner the night before a contract is signed. A female entrepreneur meets her mentor and he unexpectedly starts making innuendos with expectation of a sexual relationship. These situations should not be the norm and they highlight the importance of carefully considering your behavior and intent—especially when meeting with a colleague or business peer one-on-one. Even if you think it’s “just drinks,” the other person may not perceive it the same way.

The emergence of the “me too” movement has heightened our sensitivity to perceived and intentional harassment in the workplace. Aside from the obvious of just not being a jerk, are there other things you can do to make sure you have a comfortable work environment for everyone? Absolutely.

The Dos and Don’ts of Business Behavior

1. Be respectful of all, from senior management to interns

2. If a business relationship starts to take a turn for romance, walk away from it—or your job

3. Don’t meet a new employee on a one-one-one basis outside the office

4. Avoid holding meetings over cocktails unless it is in a group and even then be aware of your behavior

5. Avoid any business trips with co-works that could be misinterpreted

6. There’s no more room for the “Good O’le Boys” club—business decisions should be made in the office with equal representation of all necessary parties

Perhaps these tips seem obvious to you, but people still violate these boundaries more often than they should these days. Even if your intent is pure, your actions could be perceived as harassing by another party. There are also plenty of people out there who still wield their power or influence over the opposite sex to fulfill their own desires.

Harassing behaviors damage growth opportunities for women in the business and start up worlds, and it’s not fair. At the end of the day, no person should ever feel so disrespected or pressured to do something they don’t want to that they ultimately leave their career or give up their startup dreams. If we don’t do something to change our behavior, we face the loss of valuable talent that could fuel our growth.

My closing message: if you, particularly on the management side, have crossed the line, change your actions now or leave the company. If you think your actions might err on the side of questionability, stop what you are doing. It’s not just about protecting your business, it’s about doing the right thing. Let’s create a world where everyone can succeed and where the only reason to say, “me too” is because you too have a job where you are respected and where your talent can flourish.

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