Posts tagged sexual harassment
Combating Sexual Harassment – A Game Plan for HR

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. 

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

Sexual Harassment-HR Steps Up

Respect for each other in a culture is always the most effective way to approach the issue of sexual harassment. Consider today’s (and Today’s) termination of Matt Lauer after complaints, investigation and conclusion of inappropriate behavior at work at NBC. The reaction of his co-hosts spoke volumes-they were clearly in shock, not realizing that their colleague could have been one of the mighty who are being felled by accusations of sexual harassment. One wonders where NBC’s conclusion that “this was not an isolated incident” came from. Had they been sitting on other allegations and investigation results that they chose not to act on in the past? We may never know.

Often sexual harassment involves something less extreme than the examples that have come to light lately, with Harvey Weinstein being accused of physically assaulting women and Louis C.K. forcing women to witness his masturbating in front of them. Everyone can agree that these behaviors are disgusting, despicable, and would easily subject an employee to immediate dismissal. What more often happens is that people are demeaned, put down or bullied with sexual comments or sexually inappropriate behaviors, and it can be a power play on the part of others in the workplace. It’s a way of saying, you can’t be yourself here, you are not welcome here, you’re on a lower level than me. Engaging in and tolerating those behaviors (and worse, having them come from the top) are things that are less easy to train for. You can clearly tell someone that unwanted touching is off limits, and that they can’t threaten someone’s job if that person refuses to sleep with them. That’s a pretty clear line. But the trick is how we decide to embrace and convey the idea that if you step on other people’s backs to get ahead, and that includes saying or doing things that are counter to their dignity as human beings, we aren’t going to reward you by promoting you and giving you more money. And if you are already in a position of power and you do these things, we’re going to take the hit even if you’re making us lots of money-we’re going to remove you from our company and make a strong statement that your behavior isn’t going to be tolerated.

Sometimes HR responds that we are in a difficult situation. We have dual roles, after all; we are there to protect the company from legal liability as well as helping employees when they encounter difficulties at work, and we serve as the investigator of these complaints. It is our job to find the facts, and come up with a recommendation about what to do next. Employment attorneys will tell the company what the risks are in any given situation, but they will not recommend what action to take. If HR finds evidence that an employee is harassing someone at work, and recommends termination, but company leadership doesn’t agree, then HR has a choice. We can go along with what leadership says, and find some other recommendation, or after making our strongest case for termination and insisting that leadership follow through, if no action is taken, we can exit the organization. We don’t get to decide what happens, because that is up to what we usually call, “the business.” The business gets to decide what to do, and then we get to decide whether we want to be part of an organization that does what they did. So, as much as I empathize with internal HR professionals when they say, “it wasn’t my choice” what consequences to deliver at the end of a sexual harassment investigation, I don’t buy it. We all have a choice every day to go to work and be part of whatever company is our employer. If their values are not consistent with ours, HR, and leadership isn’t open to listening, learning and growing, we must find ourselves another employer.

Recently, one of my clients terminated an employee on my recommendation. The behavior at issue consisted of verbal comments. The coworkers around this former employee were concerned about him losing his job and told me they not worried that he would assault them. I reminded them that although they were strong people who were confident in themselves and their ability to respond to this behavior, it was absolutely counter to the organization’s values to tolerate it. I also reminded them of these two things:

1.       We don’t know how any future team members might react to behavior like this

2.       We don’t know who else might behave like this in the future

We can’t make exceptions because someone is otherwise well-liked, or because he or she is a great performer. We have to make clear on the front end what’s expected, be frank and open in talking about it when people do not behave according to those expectations, and draw clear lines and let people learn the hard way when they refuse to abide by these norms at work. Earlier this fall, I had sat across a desk face to face with this former employee and told him exactly what he had been heard saying at work, and let him know that it was disrespectful, unprofessional and would not be tolerated. I told him if it happened again he would be terminated. And to my client’s credit, they followed through with that termination when the time came.

In order for HR to step up and handle sexual harassment, there are a few main points we must begin with:                                            

·       Bullying, manipulative, power-play behavior often goes along with sexual harassment. If we address the former, we will diminish the risk of the latter.

·       Being open about addressing sexual harassment begins with interactive training during the orientation and onboarding process (I am still working on developing this training-it’s difficult to meet that goal because those who embrace the training are the ones who don’t need it as much).

·       When the time comes that an investigation substantiates that an employee has behaved in a way that’s counter to the company’s values and/or has violated policy, then action must be swift and clear.

When I come across a client that is having trouble with projecting and maintaining cultural values around respect and open communication, I typically will recommend one of my organizational development colleagues come in and facilitate a communication session with leadership. Part of this may be personality profiling, 360-degree feedback and other tools to help them open up to one another and identify risks, attitudes and working styles that are interfering with their ability to lead effectively in an atmosphere where gender diversity and other kinds of diversity in their teams can thrive and deliver success in their organization. This also is an effective way to combat the false narrative that men and women can’t work successfully together, with mutual respect where they are valued for the results they deliver and the talents they bring to the organization.

I'm hoping, like many of my HR colleagues are, that the current climate of openness and accountability, as well as support for people who have been harassed continues, so that future men and women who have less power than those in the media and Hollywood will feel some of the power too and feel supported enough to come forward. We will do whatever is in our power to create and maintain cultures of respect in our organizations that allow that to happen. 

Photo by ahyakal on / CC BY 

What is Sexual Harassment? An HR Perspective

If you’re asking for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion, subjecting people to clearly unwanted sexual contact/behavior, or telling someone they’ll be fired if they don’t sleep with you (**Ahem, every famous transgressor that's been outed lately), then the videotaped sexual harassment training you viewed upon hiring probably told you that’s sexual harassment. But it’s more complicated than that, and the legal definition of sexual harassment contains a lot of gray areas:

Here is part of the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment, which can include:

…unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Being on the right side of the legal line doesn’t necessarily mean you should pat yourself on the back that you have a high functioning, gender-inclusive culture. It’s worth going beyond talk of harassment, a hostile work environment, and the like. We have to do better if we’re going to retain top performers and cultivate a successful, committed and tight-knit team. In order to do that, we need to change the narrative from useless employer “CYA” anti-harassment training to answering difficult questions that actually illustrate what’s toxic in our work cultures.

Focusing on sexual gratification at the expense of a coworker’s dignity and well-being is clearly reprehensible. But other situations may not be so clear. With that in mind, if you’re not sure whether a particular activity, decision or topic of conversation contributes to an atmosphere of harassment, ask yourself some of these questions:

1.       Is the behavior or conversation centered around sex or sexuality, even if not for sexual gratification, but instead to exert power or demean someone?

2.       Is the interaction sexual in nature and unrelated to the work at hand?

3.       Is sexually focused behavior or talk directed from one person with power toward another person with less power? This doesn’t just mean a supervisor to an employee, but could also be a client or customer, or someone considering investing in a company.

4.       Are you tempted to keep it secret?

5.       Did you cross a physical boundary that is normally inappropriate at work?

6.       Do you treat people differently at work based on your sexual attraction to them?

7.       Has someone gone along with the behavior or talk but it’s clear from the person’s body language that discomfort or awkwardness exists in the interaction?

8.       Did you press forward with a sexually explicit topic or action after someone said “no” or changed the subject?

9.       Would you be comfortable discussing the interaction with your grandma, or seeing a news story about it online?

10.   Did you witness any sexually inappropriate behavior from a coworker directed toward someone else, and you laughed it off or silenced yourself or others about it?

If the answers are yes to any of these questions, it may be worth investigating further and considering changes. The pushback I often hear is that a company’s culture is “freewheeling” and “no BS” and people like being able to “be themselves” at work in order to foster innovation-leaders don’t want to diminish that. What they’re missing is that some people are just pretending to feel great about it, and those who actually do typically are in the seats of power in the organization. That makes their behavior more dangerous and likely to negatively impact their company’s brand and invite legal liability, not to mention, most importantly, risking serious harm to others from potential harassment in the workplace. If your company culture is centered around being free about the way you talk and act toward one another and you value that energy more than you do respect for everyone in the workplace, you may want to reconsider.

I’m working with my clients to address the potential business risks of this behavior and develop understanding of the potential upside financially of creating an atmosphere of respect, passion, drive and success where men and women can do phenomenal work together without harassment and assault. The energy of your organization can change for the better without losing your company’s fiercely unique identity.

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