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MJ HR: Protect Your Employees & Your Business with Actionable Tips in the Era of #metoo

There is little doubt that today’s cannabis industry offers career and entrepreneurial opportunities for women in ways surpassing those of other commercial enterprises. 

Just look at the number of women executives in today’s canna businesses. According to recent statistics, that number hovers around 27 percent, while women executives make up just 23 percent in all industries nationwide. Clearly, today’s new green wave of cannabis acceptance has been good for women in important ways that extend beyond consumer trends. And there is little to indicate that this will change in the near future.

Yet these numbers belie a troubling reality shared equally by other businesses today: Sexual-harassment incidents continue to be a force of disruption and concern. And these types of harassment issues can be legally and financially destructive for organizations that enable them.

For the past couple of years, our shared cultural landscape has been one in which sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has been highlighted and defined in large part by the #metoo movement. This viral campaign to bring awareness of the sexist and discriminatory practices faced by women has grown in prominence across all industries, and the cannabis business environment is no different.

Today, the EEOC is reporting a 12 percent increase in sexual-harassment cases, and the agency is making more reasonable-cause findings in these kinds of incidents, as well. And even though employers might want better instruct their workers on how to avoid sexual harassment issues in the workplace, EEOC training on the topic often is backlogged by months.  

Clearly, it’s up to employers, themselves, to proactively take steps to protect their companies and their workers in this new era of discriminatory concerns. In doing so, there are some basic measures that all cannabis organizations can adopt.

First, though, companies need to recognize what sexual harassment is. 

Broadly speaking, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace that creates an intimidating or hostile environment. Specific acts or situations aren’t necessarily defined by law, because anything that makes an employee uncomfortable can possibly lead to a sexual-harassment complaint. 

Know, too, that this kind of harassment can affect anyone–males included–at any level in an organization, and it even can extend to customers or vendors in some cases. 

It’s also important for employers to understand that, in addition to federal rules (which come from the Title VII section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), individual states sometimes have their own regulations that need to be considered. We see this, for example, in a new trend toward some states prohibiting confidentiality of sexual-harassment case settlements and the like.

Against this backdrop of legal rules and cultural awareness, here’s a brief look at some of the ways in which employers can better protect their workers, customers and organizations.

  • Clear Policies: It’s imperative that businesses create and express clear sexual-harassment policies for their organizations. It might seem a no-brainer, but this is a vital step in enforcing the rules that protect an organization and its employees. Further, these policies are best expressed in a handbook form that can be made available to all employees.
  • Employee Handbook a Must: In the handbook and in other company communication about sexual harassment, organizations need to stress unequivocally that employees will face discipline or termination if they violate these harassment policies. Any grey area is one that potentially could be actionable.
  • Clear Reporting Protocols: In addition, organizations need to have clear procedures in place for employees to report problems or express complaints. No matter how defined and well-communicated sexual-harassment rules might be, they will serve little purpose if employees can’t easily and effectively report misconduct in the workplace. In fact, the absence of reporting options often can be a significant factor in the level of unreported sexual misconduct in the workplace.
  • Training/Workshops: Ideally, companies should train employees annually. Not only will this consistently communicate to employees what behavior is acceptable and what is not, annual training sessions can help organizations remind their workers about the importance of combating sexual harassment on the job. Annual training sessions also bring new employees up to speed on the topic and their organizations’ efforts. Any rule additions or changes can be communicated more effectively during these sessions.
  • Management Training Programs: And as much as possible, organizations should train their managers separately, with a focus on teaching these workplace leaders how to respond to complaints quickly and appropriately. Although all workers have an obligation to enforce a harassment-free workplace, managers can have the most immediate effect on how successful or otherwise a company’s sexual-harassment reporting program might be. Toward this end, it would be wise for organizations to make implementation of harassment policies part of managers’ performance expectations.
  • Setting a Positive Company Culture: Finally, understand that a company’s culture comes from the top. No matter how clearly a company’s sexual-harassment policy is enunciated, it means nothing if an organization’s leadership is not setting a positive and proactive example of what is and what is not tolerated. 

Of course, these measures aren’t the only ways cannabis organizations can counter the rise in #metoo complaints, and companies would be wise to address all situations unique to their areas of the marketplace and their individual staffing structures. 

But a foundation of clearly communicated expectations can promote a more welcoming environment for everyone in any organization. And today’s cannabis industry — universally noted for its positive, health-focused influence on society — is best served by people who can freely participate in promoting and expanding it without the unneeded burden of protecting themselves from unwanted sexual advances.

Christine Lamb

Christine Lamb

Christine (Chris) Lamb leads the employment practice at Fortis Law Partners where she focuses on counseling companies and executives on human resources and personnel issues and defending companies in employment lawsuits. Chris has a quarter century of experience representing a wide variety of companies ranging from start-up businesses to Fortune 100 companies. Chris has represented clients in matters before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the United States Department of Labor, Colorado Wage & Hour Division, United States Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), and the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment (CDLE).  She also provides advice and counseling on personnel policies and employee manuals, employment contracts, executive compensation, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and harassment investigations. For more information, contact [email protected].

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