With TIME Magazine’s declaration that the “Silence Breakers” (i.e., women who have come forward to report their personal experiences as victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace) as their “Person of the Year”, there is clearly a desire to see sexual harassment stamped out in the workplace. In addition to this public pressure for change, we’ve already established that sexual harassment in the workplace is expensive and damaging to employers and employees alike.
This combination of a strong public outcry for change, along with a clear business case for prevention, puts employers in a uniquely powerful position. And of course, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That is to say, it is now up to employers to take this culture shift to the next level within their organizations and stop the harassment before it starts.
To draw on another trendy HR theme, i.e., Wellness Programs, that aim to keep an organization’s workforce physically healthier from the start and thereby keep health insurance costs down in the long run, when it comes to sexual harassment, there are a number of preventative measures that employers can and should be using to keep their organization “healthy” and harassment free.
- Have a harassment policy in place: This policy should have a clear definition of what constitutes harassment and state that harassment on the basis of any protected status (of which sex/gender is one) will not be tolerated. Include specific behaviors as necessary. While there is a legal definition of harassment at the federal level, keep in mind that as the employer, you have the power to raise the bar and set higher expectations for your employees. These may not be legally binding spelling out that certain behaviors are not “okay” at your specific workplace can give you a better chance of addressing issues (including allowing for consistent enforcement and appropriate corrective action if such behavior is not displayed) that may come to light before they rise to the level of being unlawful. Finally, having a harassment policy on the books and consistently enforced can provide some protection in terms of the legal liability of your organization should a claim come up down the line.
- Provide training: The latest (and more effective) trend in harassment training is to avoid confrontational or punitive approaches and instead to take more holistic training approach that encourages “professionalism,” “respect,” or “civility” in the workplace. By framing the issue more broadly as maintaining a basic level of respect for others, this new approach to harassment prevention feeds nicely into the building a healthy workplace culture concept without coming off as to accusatory or suggesting that someone has/will sexually harass their coworkers.
- Get buy-in from the top: Whether it’s training or policy, for these to truly make an impact on how sexual harassment fits into, or rather, doesn’t fit into workplace culture, the first step is to have buy-in from leadership. Employees need to know that the focus on preventing sexual harassment is being driven from the top-down. This isn’t fluff just to file away in the handbook or a training meant just fill the day or protect the company legally, but that leaders feel strongly about the topic and are willing to invest company resources into making sure everyone is on the same page. And yes, by “resources” we do mean money. Training will cost money, but as the dollar figures cited above demonstrate, investing in harassment prevention and awareness is a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the costs that your organization will incur if sexual harassment isn’t stopped in its tracks.
If allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace come to light, for the employer, proper preparation could be the difference for an employer prevailing in a lawsuit or charge of discrimination. Perhaps more importantly however, for the employees working at a company that is prepared to handle allegations of sexual harassment quickly and effectively, this can make all the difference.
Employers should establish reporting procedures for employees to report harassment issues and related concerns and communicate these procedures with all employees.
Best practices suggest that an organization should have more than one outlet for employees to report their concerns (such as to any member of management, to HR, or through an anonymous “hotline”). Unfortunately, this is often because cases of workplace sexual harassment are perpetrated by an immediate supervisor of an employee. By having multiple reporting options in place, employees at any level should, ideally, never find themselves in a situation where their only “reporting” mechanism is through the perpetrator of the harassment itself.
And, it is important for those who are in the position to accept such concerns know how to appropriately respond to the complaining employee as well as how to raise the concern as may be appropriate within the organization.
Once a complaint is received through the company’s reporting mechanism, how the investigation proceeds from there should be well thought out and documented ahead of time. In some cases, this may mean an external investigation is required (e.g., for allegations levied against higher profile individuals in the organization). But in many cases, a well-organized, neutral, expedient, and effective internal investigation, typically conducted by HR, can be equally appropriate and can hold up just fine in a court of law.
If an internal investigation is conducted, the individuals in charge of it should be trained ahead of time on best practices.
This includes determining the interview questions in advance of the interview, how to conduct an effective interview of all parties involved, document review, specifics of the related policies, and how to gather evidence.
Even assuming that an employer has taken all the right steps towards creating and maintaining a healthy, open, respectful workplace, the truth is sexual harassment may very well still rear its ugly head. But, with the help of a healthy dose of preparation and a new found determination to focus squarely on prevention, the American workplace can start to make inroads towards creating a harassment free workplace, and ultimately achieving the culture shift that all employees deserve.