Allegations of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace:  No, HR Didn’t Fail. WE did!

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, in the News and in Hollywood

Right now, leaders are in a unique position to radically change their organizations, for the better.  The events of the past six months have made it necessary: The accusations against Harvey Weinstein and others, followed by Time Magazine choosing the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, and the #MeToo movement on social media. While the phenomenon started in Hollywood, the media, and politics, sexual harassment has become an avalanche reaching all industries and organizations.

In the press HR appears to be under a new microscope. One email from a partner in the training industry featured the subject line “It’s time for HR to get serious about protecting our employees from sexual harassment,” as if HR wasn’t already serious.  SNL’s Weekend Update even weighed in on the role of HR and harassment in the workplace.

Many of ej4’s client contacts are in HR, and we’ve found that, if there’s anyone in a company that cares about people and about creating a safe environment for them, it’s the hard-working people in the HR department. We work with them almost daily. They are a truly dedicated group. I imagine most of the companies in the news had some form of anti-harassment and compliance training in place.  But “checking the box” and watching a few videos once a year clearly isn’t enough.  

The solution lies in the corporate culture. People often ask why the victims never spoke up or waited for 10-15 years to come forward. The answer - the corporate culture did not make the victims or targets feel safe speaking up.  No one wants to be a whistleblower, a tattler. People are willing to put up with bad behavior because they need to keep their job. It’s the company’s responsibility to not put employees in situations where harassment can occur.  

Culture starts with senior management and the leadership team. They define the core values and desired culture and incorporate it into all aspects of the business. They gain the commitment from all levels of employees. They should not allow or tolerate the bad behavior of the people in powerful positions.

I’ve been in my position long enough to know the obvious truth: There is only so much HR can do without the support of leadership. Without leadership support, toxic cultures are permitted to continue.  You can send memos, update employee handbooks, and require watching training videos, but if employees don’t see leadership support, it means nothing.

Now for the first time in a long while, senior management should be taking a step back and listening to their HR partners.  HR is in a position to lead a major transformation in the organizational culture to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.

If there is one thing I want you, the reader, to take away from this article, it is this: You can be the catalyst for that change. Here’s how to start.

  1. Start the conversation with leadership. Revisit your core values and take an honest look at your culture.  Is it something you are proud of?  Challenge the status quo.  Does the environment support diversity, inclusion and equality? Would you want your daughters to work here?
  2. Have a policy in place, and communicate it. Most organizations have a harassment policy in place. If yours does not, now is a good time to get one. (For example, SHRM has a useful template for Anti-harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure. You can also check out our video “Writing and Communicating an Anti-Harassment Policy” with a free trial.) Make sure that everyone knows what the policy is.
  3. Make it about culture and core values. Compliance with state and federal laws in regard to sexual harassment should not just be a matter of “checking the box.” In fact, we wrote a white paper about this very topic. Organizations need to commit to fighting harassment at every level to provide a safe environment. This is bigger than compliance with the law.
  4. Teach employees how to look for bad behaviors. If building a harassment-free culture is everyone’s responsibility, everyone needs to know what to look for.  Offenders can be very patient and start with smaller acts that seem inconsequential.
  5. Teach healthy communication. Not all anti-harassment training has to be negative or finger-pointing. We have a whole series on Healthy Communication that covers passive aggressive behavior, avoiding difficult conversations and reacting with too much emotion. These skills can be valuable when confronting potential harassment situations.
  6. Investigate complaints quickly and seriously. No one wants to be the whistle-blower, and it takes courage to come forward. Respect that courage by taking complaints seriously. Be a hero and champion for your employees. Handling complaints is the topic of one of our updated courses from December on anti-harassment.
  7. Look at your hiring practices. So many companies hire based solely on skills and experience. It pays to put hiring procedures in place to identify candidates who are a cultural fit. And by cultural fit, I mean a fit with the culture you are trying to build.
  8. Remember, it’s not just about off-color jokes. Harassment and discrimination can come in different forms. For example, does your workplace breed bullying in general, outside of sexual conduct? This should be addressed too. Does the same culture allow age and pregnancy discrimination? This also needs work, then. We have courses that cover these topics as well.
  9. Gain commitment from all. By far, this is the toughest part of changing any organization’s culture. It will take time and persistent effort. With this issue being in the news, more people will be ready to participate and support the change. Start the dialog.  Your employees will welcome the efforts.

How Can We Help?

Simply launching an updated series of videos is not—could never be—the sole solution. Still, it is a process we started at the beginning of 2017, and we can’t help but feel that our new anti-harassment content release in December (and more coming this month) is timely and fortunate.  Use our compliance videos to start the dialog. It is possible to eliminate sexual harassment in your workplace. 

And so, with our help, we ask that you consider some of our updated content, available with a full-featured, full-library, free trial of Thinkzoom, our LMS:

  • Anti-Harassment for Everyone
  • Anti-Harassment for Managers
  • Healthy communication
  • Bad language at work
  • Retaliation
  • Investigating Complaints
  • Age and pregnancy discrimination
  • Developing Your Culture

Good luck. Now’s your moment. Seize it.

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