Sexual harassment claims have recently led to the downfall of several rich and powerful people.
In July 2016, Roger Ailes resigned as chairman and CEO of Fox News following allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues. Less than a year later, Fox News fired pundit Bill O’Reilly for the same reason. In June, Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber after a female engineer detailed a pattern of sexual harassment at the company. And, in October, Harvey Weinstein was terminated as co-chairman of the movie studio he founded, The Weinstein Co., following an expose that detailed decades of sexual abuse allegations made against him by actresses and employees.
Such headlines make for salacious reading, but sadly, sexual harassment is not confined to the corner office. It happens in much more mundane places—like the assembly line—and it can cost manufacturers dearly.
In August, Ford Motor Co. agreed to pay $10.1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment at its assembly plant in Chicago and its stamping plant in Chicago Heights, IL. In 2014, four female employees filed a class action suit alleging they were groped, subjected to unwanted requests for sexual favors, and harassed by male colleagues who exposed their genitals or showed cell phone pictures of their genitals. In one case, a male colleague carved phallic symbols out of rubber hoses and Styrofoam during his breaks and threw them at female employees, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleged that supervisors told female workers to forget instances of sexual harassment and retaliated against anyone who complained.
In 2015, allegations of a hostile workplace for women and minorities led Ford to replace up to eight top managers at the Chicago factory.
It’s not the first time the automaker has settled such a suit. Ford paid $19.5 million to settle a similar lawsuit by 14 female workers at its Chicago plant in 2000. Nor is Ford is unique. During the past few years, sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed against North American factories operated by Fiat Chrysler, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Tesla.
Fortunately, managers can take action to reduce the risk of sexual harassment at their plants. First, adopt a clear sexual harassment policy. That policy should define sexual harassment; state that it will not be tolerated; state that the company will discipline or fire harassers; detail a procedure for filing harassment complaints; pledge to investigate any such complaint; and state that the company will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who complains about harassment.
In addition, manufacturers should conduct harassment prevention training annually for employees and managers.
Finally, manufacturers should monitor their workplaces. Just as managers conduct regular “gemba walks” to ferret out waste, they should also get out among workers and talk to them about their environment. Keep lines of communication open and take all complaints seriously.
No one should have to work in a hostile environment.