Brokers should include a sexual harassment section in the company’s policy and procedures manual (you do have one, right?). The manual should describe clearly the behaviors that will not be tolerated.

The statistics are disturbing. Anywhere between 25 percent and up to 85 percent of women report having experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2016 study on workplace harassment by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Even if we take the conservative end of this vast range, that’s one in four women.

Although women do make up the majority of reported complaints, the EEOC reports that 17 percent of complaints were filed by men. There’s also been an increase of same-sex complaints with women harassing women or men harassing men.

If you’re running a brokerage and employ any staff or licensed salespeople at all, these facts should cause you concern.

What is sexual harassment?

The EEOC report is the result of an 18-month investigation by the agency, which began long before the #MeToo movement spread across social media channels.

The #MeToo movement shined a light on Hollywood’s dark corners, and quickly spread to the financial industry and other business sectors. Chances are, it’s only a matter of time before the real estate industry has its own bad players called out.

The same summer that the EEOC issued its report in 2016, several women blogged about a disturbing conversation on a real estate conference bus that left them shaken due to its threatening nature. The outrage was swift online to start, but cooled as time passed. Inman reported on the allegations.

Sexual harassment encompasses more than just unwanted sexual advances or physical contact. It can also be any discriminatory, vulgar or demeaning comments.

Any communication or interaction that creates a hostile environment can be considered harassment. It can be between management and staff, between co-workers or even a client or customer interacting with an agent.

In the largest brokerages, sexual harassment training may be mandatory for management, per corporate policy. But according to the National Association of Realtor’s 2017 Profile of Real Estate Firms, 79 percent of brokerages are single-office firms with an average three full-time licensed salespersons.

The real estate broker in those cases isn’t likely to mandate himself or herself attend training. The EEOC study showed that training alone is inadequate and has not worked as intended, but in fact serves, in many cases, to focus simply on avoiding legal liability.

Training is not enough

Brokers should include a sexual harassment section in the company’s policy and procedures manual (you do have one, right?). The manual should describe clearly the behaviors that will not be tolerated.

Outline how staff or agents should report sexual harassment incidents so there is a concrete plan in place. List how to file a complaint, who to report it to and the proper procedure.

You can find a couple of examples of sexual harassment policies here and here. Hopefully, they will provide you with ideas of what you should include, if you haven’t already created a sexual harassment policy. You should also take a look at Inman’s guide for leadership on sexual harassment and gender.

A buzzword in many discussions about brokerages is culture. (Inman published a Special Report on the keys to a strong company culture this year). The office should be a safe environment, with a culture of mutual respect. Respect needs to flow both ways, from the top down and the bottom up.

In setting the firm’s vision statement and values, set your standards of what will (and will not) be tolerated. Make a commitment to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.

Walk the walk

Leaders of the company must “walk the walk” and not just give lip service trying to avoid problems. Brokers’ and managers’ actions can be more important than their words.

A leader who lectures at a sales meeting that sexual harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated, then jokes about it later or plays down vulgar behavior sends a strong message out by his or her actions.

Training and a policy manual impart knowledge, but the broker must also evaluate his or her own behavior and set a positive example.

An issue emerges when brokers choose profit over people, specifically when it comes to star performers. Weed out toxic people, no matter what their ranking in the company is.

You need to have zero tolerance for bad behavior, whether that is sexual harassment, bullying, or other intimidation in the office. If you tolerate unacceptable behavior because someone is a top producer in the firm, you foster a negative environment.

By creating a culture of openness, by calling attention to inappropriate behavior and by setting a zero-tolerance policy, you’ll empower your people, making them feel safe and able to report incidents.

Such an environment also encourages bystanders to take action, supporting victims (either publicly or privately) to let them know they are acknowledged and not alone. Peer-to-peer interventions can be effective in proactively addressing a situation early, before it becomes a problem.

Take action

Once you are aware of a problem, it’s vital to take action immediately. The victim may be uncomfortable describing the situation. Acknowledge the seriousness of the complaint, and be prepared to have a difficult conversation with the aggressor.

You may not want to confront the accused, but you must take an objective assessment of the complaint.

  • When and how did the situation occur?
  • Is this a pattern of behavior for this person?
  • Are there other negative traits that may not be sexual harassment but are still important (bullying, racism, violence)?
  • What impact does the situation have on the victim?
  • What impact does this person’s behavior have on the office and reputation?

Besides having an in-office situation, your staff or agents may also experience sexual harassment from a client or consumer. Your policy manual should address how to handle unwanted advances or vulgar behavior when dealing with a member of the public.

The bottom line is that no commission is worth working with someone who makes you uncomfortable, for any reason — period.

Sexual harassment has been illegal for over 50 years, yet it’s still prevalent in the workplace.

The EEOC report concluded, “Harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own — it’s on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment.”

Take proactive steps now so your brokerage isn’t part of the problem. It’s on all of us.

Erica Ramus, MRE, is the broker/owner of RAMUS Real Estate. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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