Saying No To Sexual Harassment At Startups

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By Dyuman Bhatt (CEO, Red Seraphim) Just after college, I took my first job in retail sales as a part of a management training program. While there was a lot to learn, one issue that stood out was the inescapable daily reality of sexual harassment.

The company did its best to train its managers and entry level employees to deal with the matter, but there was no sense of prevention. For almost all women working there, it wasn’t a matter of if they would be sexually harassed, but more a matter of when. Sometimes, it was a sleazy customer asking, “How much would it cost to buy you?” or a married vendor making unwanted advances on staff members. Suffice to say, the company had huge employee retention issues and there is little wonder why.

As a result, when I started Red Seraphim, a social and mobile game company, I refused to let anyone go through that. The founding team created a genuine and honest approach in educating new team members about the issue and came up with a few good practices for other entrepreneurs:

  1. New grads don’t have a clue what sexual harassment is - explain it to them:
    • As we brought on interns and new team members of all different backgrounds, none of them had a clue on what sexual harassment was: what it looked like, what they should do about it, etc. You should never assume the people you are dealing with have knowledge of what harassment is.
  2. Sexual harassment can happen to men and women:
    • I don’t like making broad statements on differences in gender. We educate and give examples on what sexual harassment in the real world tends to look like to both genders.
  3. Let the team know you are on their side:
    • Any time we get a new team member, the management team lets them know what is acceptable and not acceptable in a 1-on-1 conversation. We also let them know that if someone from outside the company, whether it be an a partner, a vendor, or even investor makes unwanted advances towards them, the executive team will step in and protect them. On multiple occasions team members have told me they were surprised by this and really appreciated just feeling that we have their back.
  4. Make sure to provide real life examples:
      At Red Seraphim, we provide the legalistic definition of sexual harassment, but supplement it with real examples such as, “Imagine if someone constantly asked you out on a date, you tell them to stop, but they just don’t let go. Now imagine if you had to work with that person everyday.” Another way is to describe the behaviors of an over zealous girlfriend or boyfriend. It makes the topic very relateable and gives context on what feeling harassed is like.
  5. Make sure they know how serious the matter is to you:
    • If the issue is important to you, show the team that it is. If you don’t believe in the message, the person on the other end will see it as a waste of time.

The above practices may not be enough to mitigate legal risk should something happen, but the genuine approach works especially well to provide open channels of communication and prevent issues early on.

“I'm lucky to work in an environment where harassment is never acceptable. Not only does it create a workspace where politics and drama are at a minimum, it also develops a sense of camaraderie between members of the team. We have a set goal in mind, and knowing that there is no tolerance for inappropriate behavior makes it easier to reach those goals without distraction," said Natasha Wallace, co-founder of Red Seraphim. "The most effective method we use is that of prevention: management makes the parameters clear, and if we see anyone stepping out of bounds, we are quick to correct them. Conversely, if we see a team member who seems upset or distracted, we approach them privately to make sure that they're being respected at the office."

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. Photo credit: April Schultz on Flickr. About the guest blogger: Dyuman Bhatt is CEO at Red Seraphim, an angel-funded social and mobile game startup specializing in competitive transplatform gaming. Prior to Red Seraphim Dyuman worked in Corporate Support Strategy at Oracle and is currently a MBA Candidate at Santa Clara University. Red Seraphim recently launched open beta of its first title, Kymera Keeper.