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Ellen Pao Sexual Harassment Lawsuit: 3 Lessons for Business Owners

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 12, 2015 12:19 PM

Ellen Pao has Silicon Valley riveted on her lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, alleging sexual harassment and gender bias.

Pao took the stand to testify this week. She described alleged sexual harassment by a coworker whom she previously had an affair with, recounted incidents of sexist jokes made by former coworkers, and claimed that she was denied promotions because of her gender.

Sexual harassment issues in the workplace can cause a lot of trouble for any business. In light of Ellen Pao's lawsuit, here are three lessons for small business owners -- in the form of questions you may want to ask yourself:

1. Do You Have an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy?

While having an anti-sexual harassment policy isn't always required by law, it is a good idea to have one in place. A clear policy will provide employees with guidance on what is and isn't sexual harassment, and will explain what happens if someone reports harassment. It is a prudent step to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and to protect your business.

2. Do You Provide Training on Sexual Harassment?

Training employees on identifying and avoiding sexual harassment is essential. What constitutes sexual harassment or discrimination may not be as clear-cut as you would expect.

For example, jokes may be intended as funny and innocent, but they could also be considered crude and discriminatory. Terms of endearment like "honey" and "little lady" could potentially get you sued for harassment. In Ellen Pao's case, she asserts that a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins didn't understand what he did was discrimination; when the partner asked Pao and another female junior partner to take notes at a meeting, he "was surprised when they said no," according to The New York Times' report on Pao's testimony.

Your employees may not intend for their comments and actions to be sexual harassment, but that will not protect you from a sexual harassment claim. Consider training your employees!

3. Do You Have a Policy on Employee Relationships?

Do you allow or prohibit personal relationships among your employees? If you don't, maybe you should. While a total ban on office relationships may not be feasible, you may nonetheless want to discourage relationships among supervisors and subordinates. A supervisor's power over subordinates and the dramas of a relationship are the perfect ingredients for a sexual harassment claim. Whatever policy you decide to implement, make sure it is clearly written and communicated to your employees. Most of all, be consistent in enforcing it.

If you need help writing (or re-writing) your company policy on harassment, an experienced employment lawyer can make sure you're on the right side of the law.

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