How Should Co-Working Spaces Handle Sexual Harassment?

If you own or operate a co-working facility, who probably want to keep sexual harassment at bay. Yet, you face a different set of challenges from employers. Employers are often required to provide legal HR policies and training, but you may not have that requirement. Yet, you need to be able to maintain a safe environment consistent with federal and state laws. The waters can get murky real fast. How can you keep members safe, while not treating them like employees? 

Does Sexual Harassment Happen at Co-Working Facilities?

Ummmm, yeah.

That’s kind of a no-brainer question. Where there are people working together, there’s going to be a potential of misconduct.

In a recent article on Quarz.com, Jullian Richardson shared her story of being sexually harassed in a co-working facility in New York. In the article, Jullian shares how a member began to make unwanted advances. The behavior persisted, leading Jullian to reach out to the manager of the co-working space.

Co-Working Manager’s Response

How did the manager respond to a member’s complaint of sexual harassment by another member?

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “He does that to everybody!”

The manager’s response certainly makes you wonder if he had been trained on how to handle something like this. What if a different manager where on duty, would he/she have handled it differently?

The ambiguity of going solely on a manager’s discretion can put the co-working space at high-risk for issues.

The Fallout

After Jullian received zero resolution from the co-working manger, she shared that the owner never said that he was sorry for the incident , and, to her knowledge, never did anything to address the situation. Furious, she resolved never give them her business again.

Then, upon further investigation, she uncovered that the co-working space had no official sexual harassment policy, or anything resembling an HR department.

Co-working spaces routinely claim to be at the forefront of the modern workplace, but while replacing traditional offices may offer greater flexibility and opportunities to collaborate outside your specific field, they also offer few of the same protections associated with the traditional model.

-Jullian Richardson

Is Everyone Educated on Sexual Harassment?

The community aspect of co-working spaces is often similar to an office, at least when it comes to physical proximity. But these spaces are also without the rules and guidelines that seek to ensure respectful and safe office etiquette.

It’s very possible that some members of a co-working space belong to a larger company, which requires sexual harassment training of all of its employees. However, this is still only a portion of the office overall. No space, to our knowledge, requires uniform sexual harassment training of all of its members.

-Jullian Richardson

An excerpt from Jullian’s article below goes on to explain how the lack of an HR deparment, policies, and training can pose a threat to co-working facilities. [full article found at https://qz.com/859832/coworking/]

Holes in the safety net

Even if a co-working space does have a sexual harassment policy, freelancers may not be aware that it exists. Employees at larger companies typically go through an on-boarding training that at least touches on the consequences of sexually harassing another employee. Not so with freelancers sharing co-working spaces. Most co-working spaces also often lack the department tasked with dealing such issues: Human Resources.

While not exactly glamorous, corporate HR departments play a vital role in office life by helping train existing staff, encouraging positive and safe employee relations, and raising awareness of relevant workplace legislation. (Of course, it’s important to note that HR’s loyalties ultimately lie with the company, not the employees).

Without this safety net, individuals risk harassment, explains Amanda Mustard, a freelance photojournalist. “Being freelance means that you don’t have an HR department, and sometimes even if you do, your reputation can pay the price for speaking out against a predatory person in the industry.”

Making up for murky legal precedents

Labor expert Bracken explains that the laws governing a co-working space’s responsibilities to its users are murky because the concept is still so new. By disrupting the traditional employer-employee and business-customer relationships, co-working spaces have also blurred the once-bright lines drawn by employment protection legislation.

“This is sticky, because there is really no employer,” he says. “Laws are drafted from an employer’s standpoint. The employer is responsible for maintaining a workplace that’s free from harassment. That goes back to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that employers should provide a workplace free of discrimination—and that includes sexual harassment. So, as an employer, you’re supposed to have policies and procedures that prevent that.”

Whether or not co-working spaces are legally classified as employers complicates the situation, and without case law, the responsibilities remain unclear. What is clear, however, are the benefits of sexual harassment policy. Bracken notes that regardless of the law, creating and enforcing sexual harassment policies is in everyone’s best interest.

“You should have policies and procedures in place, enforce them, and train people to use them properly,” he said. “Co-working spaces should want to keep their workplace free from harassment. And if the co-working space has any employees, they can be held responsible to the extent that one of their employees may be harassed by somebody else in the workplace.”

Read Full Article on Quartz

Co-Working spaces must be proactive, not reactive

Don’t wait until a high-profile lawsuit at your co-working space before you start taking sexual harassment seriously.

Summary

Co-working facilities need to address sexual harassment. Your members' safety should be your #1 priority. Let the writer's account in article open your eyes if you operate coworking space. 

Here's what we recommend:

  1. Have a strong policy against unsafe or harassing behavior.
  2. Clearly outline what happens if a member violates the policy, escalating the action based on the severity of the violation.
  3. Implement a reporting system, then clearly communicate this to all members. This will go a long way to help assure members that you have their safety in mind. And they'll know who to speak to if an issue arises.
  4. Lastly, train your staff on how to deal with sexual harassment complaints. Teach them to avoid trying to investigate a sexual harassment claim unless they're fully equipped to do so.

In the article, the coworking manager simply brushed off the sexual harassment complaint. Was he trained on how to handle it? Seems unlikely. Don't leave your workers unprepared to deal with issues this vital.

The stakes are too high... we're talking negative press, decreased memberships, and potential lawsuits. You can set your coworking facility apart by building a strong member safety program.

It’s important to build a strong HR Compliance Program for your co-working facility so it can be protected from expensive legal issues, and members can feel safe in a space that prioritizes inclusion, safety, and compliance.  

ComplyTrain provides HR Compliance software to co-working facilities and does the heavy lifting for you. Includes custom sexual harassment policies, training, compliance consents, and reporting.

www.complytrain.com

About the Author ComplyTrain

ComplyTrain is a proprietary cloud-based software platform that provides everything companies need to deploy a complete HR compliance program. We make HR Compliance assessible to every company, no matter the size. A rock solid HR compliance program helps companies build a compliant workforce, promoting workplace safety, inclusion, and unbias treatment, and helping avoid costly lawsuits, fines, and negative publicity from being sued. www.complytrain.com

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