Enforce sexual harassment policies -- really

Columnist Dave Barry pointed out in a 2004 classic that the “real” speed limit is the one that won’t earn a driver a ticket. The sign may say 65 mph, but if drivers aren't stopped until they hit 75, that’s how fast 80 percent of them will go.

Clearly the real speed limit for sexual harassment in the workplace has been a lot higher than whatever is printed in policies gathering dust in HR filing cabinets. The men whom “silence breakers” are naming now as workplace sexual offenders did what they did while most employers had rules prohibiting such behavior. But the perpetrators were aware, and their victims found out to their chagrin, that those limits wouldn't get them in trouble.

It must be salt in the wounded pride of men now being accused to realize there is no statute of limitations, career-wise, for past harassment committed with impunity. Whatever the penalties would have been, they now include public shaming, loss of employment, and no opportunity to defend themselves — if by chance some of the accusations are questionable.

Where is Aesop when we need a fable about how the truth will come out and why secrecy and deceit never guarantee escape from consequences?

It's not only those who are tempted to touch or bully that need to hear that tale. The future of workplace safety from harassment is in the hands of managers and supervisors who must turn around their corporate cultures. The term "silence breakers" for the women who have come forward evokes the power of silence to persist for years, while many people knew but did nothing.

No more winks and nods. Companies need to model appropriate behavior from the top down. That includes dusting off policies most likely first adopted in the 1990s at the behest of corporate counsel and, equally likely, filed away in case a complaint became a lawsuit. That way a company could say, when the judge asked, that it had a written policy against such behavior.

Policies, like laws, must be enforced or they're pointless. The real speed limit is the one that police use to decide whom to pull over. If there is any doubt about what the law requires, the Connecticut Human Rights and Opportunities Commission will be glad to conduct a free, two-hour training session for any company in the state. Then there will be no excuse for harassing behavior nor for failing to confront the accused if a complaint is made.

Any employer of three or more people must comply with state laws on workplace harassment, and any that employs 50 or more people must provide two hours of training to new supervisors. The Day, which has regularly held such training for new supervisors, has asked CHRO to conduct another session early in 2018. We urge other companies to do the same.

Dave Barry's other point in that 2004 column was that no driver thinks he or she is average. Everyone is above average. While struggling out from behind the airbags after hitting the gas instead of the brake, they keep insisting the crash was not their fault.

The ingrained egotism that whispers, "I'm not average, the rules don't apply to me," can only be defeated when the corporate culture says there is no rock star here that doesn't have to comply. That applies to sexual harassment of and by both men and women  — in the studio, in government, on campus or any place where someone supervises others.

Women and men who are employed, taught, coached or mentored can be better prepared as well. Long before an authority figure or co-worker crosses the line of harassment, employees must be informed of their company's policy, the law and their own rights. Young people need to be taught they have control of their bodies and how to recognize an unhealthy relationship. If no one is immune from penalties for trying to force unwanted attention, fewer people will risk it.

The silence breakers have enabled the current conversations about sexual harassment. They have forced transparency and action, a mighty accomplishment. There can be no going back.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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