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Make It Easy for Employees to Speak Out When Harassment Occurs

Summit addresses challenges, identifies solutions to handling sexual misconduct

A business woman covering her nose with her hand in front of a laptop.

The dynamics of an organization's power structure can contribute to pay inequity, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment, said speakers at a recent panel discussion on sexual harassment in the media industry. And those dynamics impede employees from speaking out about sexual misconduct they experience on the job. The way to overcome the problem, speakers said, is to find ways to help employees report abuse and to diversify the workplace.

"Power often leads to issues of discrimination at large," observed Sarah Glover, president of the College Park, Md.-based National Association of Black Journalists. She was among panelists Tuesday at The Power Shift Summit in Washington, D.C. A culture in which a star employee is protected despite his or her inappropriate language or behavior sends a message that calling out that behavior could put the victim's job in jeopardy.

While the event featured speakers from the media, there are takeaways for HR professionals, managers and employees in all workplaces.

Have the Difficult Conversation

"In the aftermath of [TV journalist] Charlie Rose's termination, we had to look at our employees … and how to take care of them," said panelist Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, senior vice president/news administration for CBS News. Rose, who hosted the "Charlie Rose" show for PBS and the "CBS This Morning" show and was a contributing correspondent for "60 Minutes," was fired after allegations he made unwanted sexual advances toward female co-workers. 

"We have very strict policies [about harassment] … [but the problem] wasn't about the policies. We had to figure out how to address employees in a way that was more personal." 

Amy Kovac-Ashley, director of newsroom learning at the American Press Institute (API), said leaders need to listen to their internal audience just as they do their external audience. That requires getting over a reluctance to hear and deal with unpleasant things, she said, noting that "there's nothing you can do unless you know how [your employees] are feeling."

Loren Mayor, chief operating officer at Washington, D.C.-based NPR and a panelist, likened talking about sexual harassment in the workplace to having conversations about formerly taboo topics. Just as women now talk openly about breast cancer, for example, they should treat sexual harassment in a similar way and "acknowledge it as a major issue and tackle it head on."

The nuances of harassment can give people pause, though, she acknowledged.

"It's pretty clear when someone swings their bathrobe open that it's harassment," Mayor said. However, people often question themselves over bringing up less obvious incidents: "I don't know if I should go to HR for that—is that weird or is it just me?" 

I do what I do because I want to make any workplace I'm a part of better. As HR leaders, our job is to continue to push until we feel that the organization is in the right place. 

Traci Schweikert, vice president of HR at the Arlington, Va.-based newspaper Politico, told attendees to focus more on conversation and less on process when bringing issues to HR's attention.

"I've had a lot of people ask, 'When should I officially do this or that?' If something is going on in your work life that's bothering you," whether sexual harassment, a career issue or something else, "I want to talk about it [with you]," she said. "We want people to have that conversation and have [HR] help them." 

She noted that there are some who do not believe HR works on the employees' behalf.

"I do what I do because I want to make any workplace I'm a part of better. As HR leaders, our job is to continue to push until we feel that the organization is in the right place. Unfortunately, not everybody in my profession gets it right all the time."

Among employees, interns often feel powerless and voiceless, making them easy targets for harassment, some speakers pointed out. Employers should create ways to help them speak out if they are being harassed, one audience member said.  

[SHRM members-only resource page: Workplace Harassment Resources]

At Politico, "we treat interns like we treat all our employees," Schweikert said. "We have regular check-ins with them with someone in HR. … They have a buddy in the newsroom, someone who is more their peer. And we do an exit interview with them," asking them how Politico can improve as an employer, about their personal experience and for advice to give future interns.  

Include Men in the Solution

"Until we understand that having a diverse and inclusive organization is the road to economic success, we will never make progress," said Julia Wallace, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, who was in the audience.

"It can't just be women talking to women. Part of the problem is we would get together and talk about what needed to change, but we couldn't do it alone. It's got to be partnering with men to make a difference." 

Men are an important part of changing the culture, according to Joanne Lipman, former editor-in-chief at USA Today and author of That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together (William Morrow, 2018).

"By not including men in this conversation, [there are] two unfortunate side effects: We demonize the good guys. And—because we're not sharing these concerns and issues we face every day—these guys are clueless; they just aren't aware of what the issues are."

Listen to Employees

Mayor started a series of listening sessions with employees after chief news editor David Sweeney left in November 2017, amid sexual harassment allegations that at least three female journalists filed against him. Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director, was forced to resign over sexual misconduct allegations earlier that month.

Three themes emerged from Mayor's listening tour:

  1. Sexual harassment was the tip of the iceberg. The conversations she initiated opened up the "broader issues of power dynamics, inequalities in the organization, racial issues. It ran very deep. It brought everything to the surface."
  2. Her organization was very siloed. "I knew we were siloed between the newsroom and other functions, but I learned we were very siloed horizontally. Voices from different tiers in the organization weren't being heard in the executive team."
  3. The organization's budget had significant ramifications on employees. The bulk was invested on NPR's content side of the business, Mayor noted. "Functions like HR were very thinly staffed and overworked with busy work and so weren't the trusted connectors in the building," she said. 
Mayor said she did not offer counter-arguments during the sessison. Instead, she listened and did not editorialize on what she learned when she reported her findings.

Do Training Better

"To really make a difference, we need to look at the prevention piece," said audience member Sharon Masling, chief of staff to Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

In June 2017, the EEOC issued a report on harassment that a task force of employers and employees helped assemble. It includes four checklists that cover leadership and accountability, anti-harassment policies, harassment reporting systems and investigations, and compliance training.

When talking about harassment training, it's important to talk about employee rights and to let employees know that harassment is illegal, that it  violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that they have specific places to turn if they have been harassed, Masling said. 

Training needs to cover how people should behave and interact in the workplace, "how to give feedback to someone if their behavior is bothering you, and how to receive that feedback if you didn't intend to be malicious in any way. What do you do as a supervisor when a worker comes to you with a complaint? 

"All of that should be part of holistic harassment [prevention] training," she said. "If you really want to stop harassment, you have to … look at what are the rude and uncivil behaviors that are happening in your workplace. Incivility is a gateway drug to harassment." 

Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al DíaThe Dallas Morning News' Spanish-language newspaper and president of the Columbia, Mo.-based American Society of News Editors, pointed out a need for changing what is incorporated in manager training.

And CBS News' Ciprian-Matthews noted that offering online training about preventing sexual abuse and harassment is good but not good enough. Her employer brought in an outside expert, who provided training for executives earlier in the year.

"That has been a huge success. It added a personal, interactive [element]" that allowed questions to be asked and nuances of harassment to be explained, Ciprian-Matthews said.

"Sometimes the online training can be very neutral and not as relatable. This other kind of training, with somebody who is an expert in the field and [who] engages people, makes for a very dynamic conversation" and helped break through any distrust that might have existed.

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