Combating Sexual Harassment – A Game Plan for HR

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In the midst of all of the justifiable community outrage, and big policy discussions around gender, diversity, culture and the role of HR in combating sexual harassment in organizations, there is a multitude of voices straining to be heard. They come from business leaders, asking what it is their organizations can do today to begin to solve this problem and to keep it at bay. Some are even asking-could this be happening in our organization without us being aware of it?

For business and organizational leaders, the right answer is to start with the basics of culture, leadership and, yes, training. However, the urge to slap an out-of-the-box training session on an unresolved problem that is rooted in disrespect and dysfunctional culture and call it good does nothing to solve the problem. It might help the company “check a box” to show that they notified their employees of their official policies and what conduct is not allowed (and later communicate this to a court as evidence of due diligence). But this just serves to perpetuate the idea of managers and HR as not really caring about employees and protecting them from harassment at work, but only worrying about their own legal exposure. Like the old 80’s-style VHS tapes employers used to play to show new employees what harassment looks like at work, this kind of rote-training-only approach is disingenuous, overly simplistic, and likely to broadcast to potential harassers that your organization is just “dialing it in” and doesn’t really care about combating harassment in their workplace culture.

That said, training is a good starting point, if it is championed by leaders, followed by authentic discussion in an environment of trust, and deeply and broadly accepted cultural norms around respect, dignity and zero tolerance for harassing behaviors among every member of an organization’s teams. Bystanders understanding their responsibility in calling out abuse of power in all its forms is also critical. A cultural environment of trust, where leaders are open to candid dialogue and employees are never punished for speaking openly about concerns, is also a strong guard against an environment of secrecy in which harassment can fester. The bonus is that trust and openness also foster innovation and engagement, which positively impacts the bottom line.

Cultural rejection of harassment, embracing the need for training and shared understanding of how to combat harassment, and an environment of trust and openness are only effective if executive leaders enthusiastically embrace them. If leaders pay lip service to culture, exempt themselves from training and punish those who come forward with concerns, then HR efforts to provide training and generate dialogue around differences will not be effective.

What are HR professionals to do?

1.       If your leaders have not yet approached HR for solutions, share information with your organization’s executive leadership on the potential negative impact of failing to address sexual harassment risk, and how HR can help. SHRM has many resources to help you do this.

2.       Ensure that your organization’s culture is supportive of respect, dignity, transparency and trust. Work with your leadership to reinforce awareness of and professional activity consistent with these agreed-upon, shared cultural norms and values.

3.       Review the current training on sexual harassment and harassment in general, and the organization’s strategy for delivering this training.

a.       Is the training up to date?

b.       Does the training contain the right information and activities to make it engaging and effective?

c.       Is training delivered to every employee, including executive leadership, or are some team members exempted?

d.       Is training and communication around harassment prevention championed by leadership, or is it seen as a waste of time or a legal requirement alone?

4.       Utilize your trusted resources in HR to ensure that your organization’s training is complete, timely, useful and effective. SHRM provides its members useful resources like sample training decks for Sexual Harassment Training for Employees and Sexual Harassment Training for Supervisors to help you get started.

5.       If you don’t have the capacity or expertise within your organization, consider bringing in consulting assistance to help you start off 2018 with an effective game plan for combating sexual harassment and other forms of harassment in your organization, and setting yourselves up for a successful year.

I encourage all of my HR colleagues to be ready to use our knowledge and understanding of business strategy, risks, culture and talent management to help our organizations thrive through creating environments of transparency, trust and respect, and providing training experiences that result in genuine learning and greater understanding among the workforce. It is only through commitment of executive leaders, HR professionals and managers working together that we will be able to foster genuine change in the toxic environments of secrecy and abuse of power that have resulted in the widespread experiences of sexual harassment that have been recently brought to light. 

Photo credit: Foter.com

An abbreviated version of this blog post appears on the SHRM Blog