Far more cases of sexual harassment are being tried in the court of public opinion recently than at any time I can remember. That we are seeing so many examples of alleged sexual harassment, or past settlements made that are just coming to light, is an unfortunate narrative whose plot should have been changed long ago.
I’ve been part of the training world on the topic of sexual harassment for over 20 years now, and the fact that so little progress has been made is discouraging, to say the least. From a human resources perspective, these public trials may be unfortunate for both sides. While victim confidentiality can never be guaranteed by an employer, an internal investigation will protect privacy on both sides. Most instances will never generate the attention of recent cases, which have gone public because they involve celebrities and other public figures. Often the accuser isn‘t seeking the spotlight, only fair and reasonable treatment that wasn’t available through other channels.
Nonetheless, following is some guidance for managing a harassment- and bullying-free workplace.
IMPORTANT NOTE: None of the information in this article should be construed as legal advice; consult a lawyer with expertise in employment law to address your questions and needs.
Why does harassment and bullying continue in the workplace?
It would seem a wealth of trained managers and arbitrators should be a part of every employer’s workplace. It’s fair to say the large majority of HR practitioners have either had coursework or training on the subject. California, Connecticut, Maine and other states have enacted laws that make sexual harassment and workplace bullying training a requirement for employers.
I found a table on the website of elearning course provider OpenSesame that lists sexual harassment training requirements by state, and while I can’t guarantee that it’s current and correct, it does offer a good starting point for multi-state employers. Your state’s Department of Labor is always the most current resource.
From LAC Group’s perspective, reports of sexual harassment have declined over the past few years and were never particularly high to begin with. We’ve had no reported incidents of groping or physical or sexual assault. Complaints tend to fall more in the realm of persistence in the pursuit of a relationship beyond the point of comfort, usually where there has been some prior relationship or even private dating. In other words, interest is not mutually reciprocated by both parties, and one party wishes to have no additional discussion on the matter with the other party.
The other common complaint brought to HR involves a comment made in a small group setting that someone found distasteful. Often times I’ve found the person making the comment either acknowledges that it was in poor judgment and is willing to apologize, or seems to have not known the joke might have been taken in an unintended, unacceptable way. Often the individual is grateful to learn so there is not a repeat incident in the future.
How LAC Group maintains a safe, inclusive workplace culture
Are we successful? Are folks simply not reporting? Are we lucky? We’ve had the good fortune to have no egregious case resulting in a lawsuit or be anywhere close to making the evening news or morning headlines. Yet no employers can rely on luck; in order to avoid sexual harassment and other bullying behaviors in the workplace, they must be proactive and strategic. There is no resting on past fortune and success when it comes to sexual harassment avoidance. I attribute our success to the following two factors:
- I think we have done an excellent job of hiring responsible, caring managers and thoughtfully training them. We conduct instructor-led training every other year, and our learning management system (LMS) is always available for those wanting to refresh their skills, or those who are new to LAC management and want to learn the LAC way.
- Diversity is another factor playing strongly to our advantage. With over 73% of our employees either female and/or a minority, our team is accustomed to functioning in a diverse, heterogeneous environment, every day.
When acceptable workplace boundaries are breached
Anticipate a quick and thoughtful response to complaints of unwanted behavior
All accusers deserve at bare minimum to have their complaint taken seriously and that all parties involved have the opportunity to provide perspective. This includes speaking to all named witnesses and other relevant parties who have some knowledge of the situation, so “quick” does not necessarily mean that a decision will be rendered same day. It also means confidentiality cannot be guaranteed, particularly when a smaller team setting is involved. Sometimes the situation is such that multiple parties need to be spoken to and followed up with on multiple occasions. This takes time. After the information gathering process comes the application of a reasonable person perspective:
- Is the complaint valid?
- Has the issue been pervasive and on-going, or does it seem to be a one-time, isolated event?
The decision and any punitive action need to be commensurate with the severity of the complaint and in-line with the evidence gathered. The goal is to establish equal treatment so all can thrive in the workplace in a safe, positive environment.
Make sure your culture does not enable a hostile workplace environment
What we have established at LAC Group is an environment in which everyone is treated with equal respect, so that even teasing or innuendos are not accepted. Sometimes the events are such that those who acted do so without an understanding of the damage wrought, so training will have an effect.
Make sure that employees who harass or bully others face consequences
Employees who report threatening or abusive behavior in the workplace need to see that their complaints are taken seriously. Often a warning to the offender is sufficient, but it must be made clear that termination is a distinct possibility if unwanted behavior continues.
Employer liabilities and risks
Employers may have liability if they do not provide training and awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment, or if they lack a sufficient companywide policy or acceptable complaint process for employees. According to U.S. EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regulations:
- Employers can be liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination or lost wages.
- Employers can also be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees, independent contractors and even clients or vendors on the premises if they know about the harassment and fail to act.
Individuals in management or supervisory roles could be personally liable dependent upon the circumstances.
Because of these risks and the current spotlight on the topic of sexual harassment, I expect more boards of directors and business leaders will take an active position and focus more attention on the issue based on those incidences that we’re reading and seeing in headlines today. At some point, good judgment and years of training will leave their mark, making the workplace all the better for it.
While we at LAC Group are not letting our guard down, we are proud of being at the forefront of what will be a positive trend for the workplace’s future.