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How law firms can combat sexual harassment and create a safer environment for everyone
The effects of the #MeToo movement are still being felt across the world. Once the hashtag popped up on Twitter after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it quickly spread to every profession, including the legal industry. Law firms are not immune to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. For years, women kept silent, but now they are speaking out. While the issue is difficult, the #MeToo movement also represents a chance for law firms to create a safer environment for everyone.
Incidence of sexual harassment in law firms
A report by FTI Consulting and Mine the Gap looked at gender dynamics in the workplace. The study included over 4,000 professional women and 1,000 professional men from a wide range of industries, including the legal industry.
One part of the study focused on harassment of women in the legal industry and found that:
- 27 percent of women said they had personally experienced or witnessed unwanted touching in the workplace in the last year. (25 percent of entry-level women; 33 percent of senior women.)
- 36 percent of women in the legal industry said they had experienced sexual harassment in the last 5 years.
- Only 50 percent of women in the legal industry reported the harassment.
- The number one reason for not reporting harassment was fear that it would negatively impact their careers.
Best Practices for Law Firms
There is no question that the legal profession has a ways to go to lower the incidence of sexual harassment. Adopting or increasing the effectiveness of current anti-harassment policies will go a long way to creating a safer environment.
There should be four main areas of focus
1. A clear, publicized anti-harassment policy.
If there is not one already in place, every law firm must have a written, publicized anti-harassment policy that should include:
- A clear statement prohibiting harassment
- A description of conduct that constitutes harassment
- A complaint procedure with multiple options for reporting harassment
- Mandatory reporting of harassment by firm personnel, including those who witness it
- A person designated to receive complaints
- A statement that all complaints will be investigated promptly
- A non-retaliation statement
- A statement that offenders will be subject to corrective action and discipline
The harassment policy should be distributed to all personnel, who must sign and acknowledge that they have read it.
2. Investigating and responding to complaints.
Law firms must have a firm protocol in place regarding how complaints will be handled. “Once the firm has notice of a potential violation of its harassment policy, it must take prompt remedial action reasonably calculated to end any harassment,” according to Bench & Bar of Minnesota.
The protocol should include:
- How investigations will be conducted
- Who will conduct the investigation
- What kind of training should the investigator have
- When to use an outside investigator
- What steps will be taken to protect the person making the complaint during the process
- What actions should be taken to end any harassment
Once the protocols are in place, they should be followed to the letter, even if it might seem “easier” to handle the matter more informally. Keeping to the policy will help protect not only the person making the complaint but the law firm as well.
3. Conduct anti-harassment training.
All personnel (including high-level partners) should have periodic training about the firm’s harassment policy. Attendance needs to be mandatory and documented. It may be necessary to have separate training for senior management and partners.
“One newer concept is ‘bystander training’: empowering co-workers and giving them tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior…and workplace ‘civility training’…that focuses on promoting respect and civility in the workplace,” according to Bench & Bar of Minnesota.
4. Have a “crisis” plan of action.
In this age of social media and viral videos, it is increasingly likely that sexual harassment claims within a law firm will go public. You need to work with in-house counsel and your PR firm to craft a crisis communication plan to control information and manage media attention or questions. You should also have a crisis team that can step in to investigate claims promptly, decide when it is appropriate to make a media statement, and craft the message.
The #MeToo Movement is not going away, and it will continue to affect every industry, including law firms and other legal professionals. Every law firm should have a clear policy and plan for dealing with harassment claims. These tips will help to create an atmosphere that makes the work environment safer for everyone.
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