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5 Steps HR Can Take to End Workplace Harassment

Two business women walking down a hallway in an office.

ATLANTA—The power of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements has transformed the sexual harassment discussion from tabloid gossip about the rich and famous into a mainstream workplace issue.

The overriding concerns for employers, according to Cindy-Ann Thomas, HR professional turned lawyer, are:

  • What does harassment look like?
  • Is there a solution for this workplace problem?
  • What will it take to make a meaningful change?

Thomas is a principal at Littler Charlotte law firm in North Carolina and co-chair of its Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity Practice Group. She spoke at the 2018 Society for Human Resource Management Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

HR professionals can address those concerns and reset the workplace culture in a post-Harvey Weinstein era, she said. She listed the following five ways to take action.

[SHRM members-only resource: Workplace Harassment Resources]  

1. Commit to battling bias.

Instead of focusing on behaviors employees should not engage in, promote activities and discussions that focus on behaviors the organization wants to encourage, Thomas said. Those discussions can invite people to define what an inclusive culture means to them and the hallmarks of a respectful workplace. Don't be derailed by stereotypes and assumptions about who harassers can be.

"Men are not the problem. Bias is the problem," Thomas said. "Women can be just as dangerous with respect to some of the biases we exhibit toward other women."

2. Encourage bystander intervention.

Emphasize the importance of bystanders' stepping forward when they witness harassment. 

One in three women and more than 1 in 10 men have been victims of sexual harassment (34 percent and 13 percent, respectively), according to the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). The nonprofit research organization in New York City commissioned an online and phone poll in January with 3,213 college-educated workers with full-time, white-collar jobs.

"In order to address harassment and assault, employers need to know how often it's happening—and whom it affects," CTI co-president Ripa Rashid said in a news release. The findings make it clear, she added, that when sexual misconduct goes unchecked, "the word gets around among colleagues and the effects on overall culture are detrimental."

Everyone in the organization needs to see what behavior is rewarded and will move them up the corporate ladder. All employees need to see bystander invention modeled, Thomas said, and the organization's messages about intervention should be communicated so that everybody knows he or she has a role to play.

3. Hold people accountable.

Wherever people work—any industry or field—harassment is happening. It will stop when people are held accountable, regardless of who they are or where they work.

"Holding people accountable for perpetuating gender bias transcends industry," Thomas said. "We have to make this operational information. It cannot be just about people. [Sexual harassment is] a systems issue."

The CTI recommends that when handling reports and incident responses, make sure employees can see what HR is doing, which helps them to trust HR and feel that their concerns are taken seriously. Other ways to build safer workplace cultures include implementing periodic surveys and culture audits and discussing anti-harassment policies.

4. Create a speak-up culture.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Task Force in 2016 found that between 25 percent and 85 percent of women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. But an organization can't correct a problem if it's unaware that one exists. Employers should create a culture in which everyone in the organization feels comfortable speaking up when there is a problem.

Provide multiple outlets to report transgressions, including a hotline and third-party services, as well as an open-door HR department.

Thomas advised HR professionals to be professional and respectful and show the employee in your words and actions that you care about the complaint.

"Don't brush off the employee's concern, even if you initially think the issue being brought to your attention is trivial," she said. Don't make jokes about what the employee is reporting. Don't retaliate or appear to retaliate against the person reporting the problem.

Take the time to listen and ask questions, and let the employee know what you plan to do and that you will follow up. 

However, the HR manager cannot be the only access point for complaints, she noted. Supervisors and other leaders also must be accessible and receive special training to learn how to accept complaints in a professional manner and not take complaints personally.

"Fear of retaliation is strong, so make sure you have a strong anti-retaliation policy" and that leaders understand it, Thomas said.

5. Assess and address your response culture.

When someone comes forward with a complaint, promptly investigate the claims, regardless of how powerful or how much "star power" the alleged harasser has in the organization, Thomas said.

Companies are obligated to conduct a thorough, good-faith investigation, and the process must be treated in as "confidential a manner as possible."

More than a year before movie mogul Harvey Weinstein faced allegations of sexual assault, the EEOC looked at how "superstar harassers," such as those who bring in lucrative clients or deals, often receive preferential treatment from their employers.

However, "the reputational costs alone can have serious consequences," particularly when it is revealed that managers ignored allegations about a so-called superstar harasser for years, an EEOC study found.

If the alleged harasser is a top performer, don't send a mixed message by quietly taking away perks or lowering a bonus he or she would normally receive. Instead, Thomas urged employers to be transparent and follow through on an investigation's findings.

If wrongdoing occurred, "you get [that employee] out the door."


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