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Ask Aliya: Building a Work Culture that Prevents Sexual Harassment

“Ask Aliya” is a new column for lawyers who are the first legal hire at their company and need advice from an in-house lawyer who has been there before. Aliya Ramji is the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc., a network used by more than 1 million healthcare professionals to share cases and collaborate. To have your legal questions for startups answered, email aramji@figure1.com with "Ask Aliya" in the subject line.

Dear Aliya,


I’m a lawyer for a medium-sized software company. Lately, I have seen reports that many tech companies, such as Uber and Tesla, have been dealing with sexual harassment issues. If there were an allegation at my company, I would not know where to start. Any advice would be helpful.

Scott

Dear Scott,


Many companies find themselves severely unprepared for allegations and complaints related to harassment and discrimination. According to the ACC Law Department Management 2016 Report, ethics and compliance is the top issue keeping chief legal officers up at night. Many companies have a Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics and want to do the right thing but are unsure of what process to follow.

The first thing I would recommend is having a Code of Conduct in place for your employees, contractors, consultants, and suppliers. Ensure it is a respected and well-understood element of your office culture — not just an aspirational formality — and work with your C-Suite to ensure ethical corporate conduct flows from the top down. Your code should include policies with respect to a safe and harassment-free workplace, as well as diversity and equal opportunity. Create detailed policies with HR and senior management if they are necessary. If your company spans many jurisdictions, note that different jurisdictions have different requirements. You may want to contact local counsel in each jurisdiction if you are unsure of your obligations.

Of course, policies alone are insufficient. Providing training and access to awareness programs for all employees is paramount to the success of your code. While these programs may take place in person or online, I encourage you to conduct your training in person so that employees can have a real discussion about the different forms of harassment. Moreover, policies need to be implemented and enforced. This means working with your HR team to have a procedure for investigating any and every claim or complaint. No issue is too small. An employee or consultant that reports an issue should be given fair and due process and should have several ways to report a claim or incident.

Larger companies even have anonymous reporting methods so that a complainant may feel safe. It is extremely important that anyone raising a good faith complaint is treated with compassion and dignity and is not subject to any reprisal or punishment. Unfortunately, one of the issues in the news today is that employees voicing their concerns have been subject to retaliation, resulting in unsafe and unhealthy work environments.  

When conducting an investigation, have an open mind. You may think sexual harassment couldn’t possibly occur at your workplace, but you must be unbiased. In the case where your company is small or if you feel the internal team may be too close to the issue, you should consider bringing in outside counsel to conduct the investigation. Should you decide to investigate in-house, follow a process. If you don’t have an established process already, there are materials online for best practices. Make sure you educate yourself about the law in your jurisdiction. Interview the people involved, including any witnesses who may be able to corroborate the parties. Remember to keep everything confidential. People may want to take sides, and this can cause tension in the workplace. As such, confidentiality is of the utmost importance. If your investigation should find harassment or discrimination, there must be consequences. If offenders are not sanctioned or terminated, a poor precedent will be set and the problem will persist.

A safe, open, and accepting workplace culture is not difficult to achieve, but everyone from the CEO down to the customers and suppliers must work toward it. In my experience, in-house counsel are in a good position to foster a safe workplace by ensuring the board, the C-suite, and middle management understand the importance of ethical corporate conduct.

Wishing you the best — and an investigation-free career.

Aliya Ramji


Photo credit: Purple Canvas Photography


The above is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and cannot be used as such. For additional resources and support, please ensure proper legal advice is obtained.

About the Author

Ramji, AliyaAliya Ramji is the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc. She also was a 2016 recipient of ACC’s Top 10 30-Somethings.


The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.