Leverage #MeToo Movement for Significant Change

EEOC commissioner expresses concern about zero-tolerance policies

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. May 11, 2018
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​PHOENIX—HR professionals need to leverage the #MeToo movement to stop harassment, being sure to issue a "proportionate and timely response" when confronted with an accusation, says Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Commissioner Chai Feldblum.

She made three overarching recommendations to employers while speaking to attendees of the recent Ogletree Deakins Workplace Strategies conference:

  • Change workplace culture.
  • Hold people accountable.
  • Have the right policies, procedures and training.

Workplace Culture

There has to be a collective understanding in the workplace that harassment is not OK. "It's as simple and difficult as that," Feldblum said.

She noted that executives can change the culture if leaders:

  • Believe harassment is wrong.
  • Articulate this belief in policies that are sent out periodically, such as on an annual basis, or at company events.
  • Act consistently with this belief.

In SHRM's 2018 Guide to Public Policy Issues, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) calls for employers to "work toward creating a workplace culture that does not tolerate discrimination or harassment."

Accountability

Employers also need to hold people accountable when they contravene stated values and expectations, Feldblum noted.

This doesn't mean firing everyone who fails to uphold company values, she cautioned. There first needs to be a thorough and fair investigation and then an appropriate punishment.

If the punishment is too weak, harassment may go unchecked. But if all conduct is met with termination, employees may become reluctant to report incidents. So be cautious about using a zero-tolerance policy, she noted.

But Theresa Donahue Egler, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Morristown, N.J., said in a panel discussion following Feldblum's presentation that some employers adopt zero-tolerance policies to indicate that they won't put up with harassment, not that they'll fire anyone who violates an anti-harassment policy. None of the zero-tolerance policies Egler has reviewed have stated that employees would be fired for violating anti-harassment policies. Instead, they have stated that the employer would take appropriate, corrective action.

Feldblum said employers also should hold the following individuals accountable:

  • Those who blame someone who is reporting harassment.
  • HR professionals who do not respond appropriately. HR should thank employees who come forward to create a climate of reporting and rooting out harassment. HR professionals also need the support of the C-suite when they go after superstar harassers, she noted.
  • Anyone who engages in retaliation.

Policies, Procedures and Training

The right policies, procedures and training all are key but won't matter without the right leadership and accountability, Feldblum observed.

Anti-harassment policies should be clear, short and presented in the various languages employees use, she noted. They shouldn't be overly legalistic and should specify what steps employees are expected to take to report misconduct.

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Nondiscrimination/Anti-Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure]

HR professionals have to take the individuals who report harassment seriously. Feldblum suggested telling claimants, "If what you're saying is true, we will stop it."

Training shouldn't seek to change what people think but instead should focus on their behaviors at work, she stated. She recommended training on how to create a respectful workplace and how bystanders can report harassment, noting that bystanders need to feel empowered to intervene.

 

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