We asked journalist Elizabeth MacBride to explore what sexual harassment means in the world of small business. The names and identifying details of the people she spoke with have been changed. Continue the story with Part 1 and Part 2.

Nearly a year has passed since the #MeToo movement began to gather momentum against sexual harassment.

But only 32 percent of employees say their employers have taken action against harassment since #MeToo first took shape. Employers—including small businesses and entrepreneurs —have a lot more work to do in creating work environments where all employees feel supported and able to report harassment without fear.

Building a respectful company culture is the most effective method for preventing workplace harassment. But it can be particularly tough when you don’t have a dedicated human resources department.

We asked experts about what they’d recommend to small businesses looking to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces.

How to create a company culture that prevents sexual harassment.

1. Turn employees into preventers.

“If a particular behavior—like telling a crude joke or showing someone an inappropriate image—is in a gray area but may not rise to the level of sexual harassment, small business owners should still try and pay attention it,” says David Miklas, a small business attorney in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Bystander training may be the answer for how to surface concerns before they turn into full-blown harassment. It’s a newer concept—college campuses have already been using it to combat sexual assault. Now, research suggests it could be used in the workplace too.

Bystander training shows employees when and how to intervene when someone is demeaning another person. It can counter what’s known as “the bystander effect,” which is when people are less likely to step in during a conflict in the presence of others since they believe others will do so first.

According to Miklas, bystander training could be crucial to preventing harassment.

“Tell your team to get involved. If someone engages in questionable behavior, they should say that they are in a professional setting, they need to reign it in, tone it down. Things such as, ‘Hey gang, settle down. Let’s tone that down,’ are an easy example,” he says.

Experts say:

  • Offer prevention-oriented trainings. Resources like Cornell University’s “Intervene” project, which offers bystander intervention training for students, can be a useful place to start. Green Dot also offers violence prevention trainings.
  • Set an example by intervening when behavior is out of line, even if it feels awkward.

2. Don’t assume everyone feels like they’re in a safe space.

One of the most disturbing elements of the #MeToo movement is the realization that many were afraid to report what was happening to them. Even when there are policies in place that protect victims, employees may feel uncomfortable speaking out.

David Treadwell is the executive director of Central Union Mission, a 75-employee, Washington, D.C.-based social service agency. He says the nonprofit splits up men and women for regular outings, where work discussions give way to more personal conversations. He says that the division helps create an emotionally safe environment for people to speak out.

“Otherwise, people don’t feel free to say what’s going on,” he explains.

Chef Erin Wade recently told the Washington Post about how she deals with sexual harassment in her Oakland-based restaurant, Homeroom. She and her team instituted a simple color-coded system employees could use to report incidents.

According to Wade,

  • Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look.”
  • Orange means comments with sexual undertones, such as certain compliments on a worker’s appearance.”
  • Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.”

Each color has a specified response, from having a manager take over a table to potentially kicking out a customer.

Experts say:

3. Find the female leaders.

A series of interviews with women in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore areas who said they’d never experienced workplace harassment revealed a common factor: the presence of female leaders.

The women—and one man—worked at businesses where the number of employees ranged from four to ten. The companies included a printing firm in Washington, D.C., a consulting firm in Bethesda, and a retail shop in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hamden.

“I think I’ve been lucky,” says Evan, the owner of the retail shop, who purchased her store after years in the retail business. “But I’ve always worked in boutiques owned by women.”

That doesn’t mean women leaders create perfect working environments; indeed, Evan noted she’d worked for one woman who was hostile, delivering deliberate verbal slaps about her arrangements of displays and tact with customers.

But research has shown that there are fewer reports of sexual harassment in companies with women in management roles.  

Of course, promoting women into management doesn’t happen overnight. It requires acknowledging and working on deeply rooted biases. But there are ways you can work on your own misconceptions, including the following:

Experts say:

Sexual harassment is a crucial—and anxiety-inducing—topic.

That’s why it’s so vital to soak up the learnings from businesses that are paving the way forward with how they think about curbing harassment at work. These companies are making serious progress thanks to the fearlessness of people who are finally accepting that no, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

Elizabeth MacBride Elizabeth MacBride is a journalist and communications consultant whose work has been published in outlets including Quartz, CNBC, Forbes.com, HBR.com, Advertising Age, Crain's New York, Newsweek, Atlantic.com, and many others.
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