Making Harassment Transparent

January 16, 2018

Employee Benefit & HR News

Sexual harassment is finally getting much needed media attention, but is media attention enough? Now is the time for employers to think critically about their culture and decide if they are doing everything they can to prevent harassment.  Harassment, in any form, is complex because it is the combination of law and perception. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines illegal harassment, as unwelcome conduct against protected classes: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.  While a protected class is easy to identify, unwelcome conduct is very broad, vague, and subject to interpretation.  There is not a scale or way to measure a degree of harassment; illegal harassment is illegal.

But illegal harassment usually doesn’t appear overnight. Conduct that isn’t illegal harassment can promote the acceptance of bad, inappropriate, or hostile behavior.  So what should an employer do?  I would suggest tackling it from four perspectives:

Communication: How often do you talk to employees about harassment?  How bluntly do you talk to them about harassment?  Harassment isn’t a pretty conversation and at times it can be completely awkward, but it has to be done and it has to be real.  If your only communication on harassment is a policy in a handbook and an online training course consider how impactful that would be in prohibiting harassing behavior and promoting reporting such behavior.

Communication should be about workplace behavior as a whole. Establish what behavior is appropriate and what an employee should do when it becomes uncomfortable. Communication should include guidance for recognizing the effect of behavior, or intent vs impact.  It should also include unconscious behavior, recognizing one’s own implicit biases.  Harassment communication should make an employee more self-aware and an alleged victim comfortable in reporting a concern.  And, most importantly a clear understanding of the means to report and resolve concerning behavior.  Harassment communication is much more complex than checking a box.

Culture: Take an honest look at what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.  Does leadership drive the culture, and is it comfortable for everyone?  If the answer is no to either part of that question then there is work to be done.  Leadership should set, and follow, the expectations of conduct and have an open door policy that is “really open” for communication with the employees.  Most complainants just want the issue resolved.  If  your organization receives complaints and resolves them quickly and professionally in-house it lessens the  possibility an employee will go to a 3rd party.  Culture does not change overnight but is always guided by leadership, good or bad.

Human Resources:  An effective Human Resources Manager needs to be recognized as a leader and allowed to become Switzerland.  The worst organizational structure is when the senior HR member reports to a peer.  This is usually done because of a perceived need to keep a “handle” on HR (guiding employment decisions) or perceived lack of effectiveness of Human Resources impact on strategic decisions.  A competent HR leader can minimize risk and add to the bottom line through internal practices because employees are probably your biggest expense and gamble. While embracing Human Resources as a leader is key it is also important to allow them to function without inducement or coercion.  HR should be allowed to protect the company and the employees from liability.  HR needs to remain neutral, even if you might not like what it has to say.

Policies:  According to a study at University of Missouri – Columbia 98% of all organization have a harassment policy.  The truth is while a policy sets expectations it will not stop action.  The glitch is when an organization makes risky exceptions to those policies or plays ostrich to particular behavior.  Written words are not going to minimize your risk if the policy is not practiced as written or if there are exceptions made for a gender, classification, department, location, or “high performer”.   The whole point of a policy is to provide structure and guidance for the employees to know what the parameters are.  There is no legitimacy if the policy is just sitting on a shelf collecting dust and ignored.  That is when a policy could become a risk in court.  I do suggest having a clearly defined harassment policy, but it is pretty worthless if it is not implemented or enforced.

Behavior doesn’t change overnight and there will always be an individual that challenges the expectations. But that challenge is much easier to identify with clear expectations, communication, and sincere responsibility for the workforce.  All employees regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information should want to come to work for you.  If that isn’t a concern to you, or your leadership, then be prepared for third party interference.

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