A paradigm shift needed on sexual misconduct

Human behavior is fascinating at the beginning of each new year. Examples abound at every local gym and fitness facility. For the "regulars," January is a nightmare of crowded parking lots, long waits to use equipment and blindingly colorful new workout clothes. By mid-February most resolutions are long-forgotten, and all is back to normal. To be fair, there are always a few success stories - the people who make New Year's resolutions and take the necessary steps to ensure long-term success. But they seem to be the exceptions.

Unfortunately, many employers take the same New Year's Resolution (NYR) approach to preventing workplace sexual misconduct. Each year, thousands of harassment prevention training sessions are conducted for employers of every size and industry, by in-house HR staff, attorneys and HR consultants. There are also countless employers who decide against this training, often believing it's best to "let sleeping dogs lie" and "not give employees any ideas." However, with the current epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints, these attitudes are, at best, misguided. I expect to hear from many of these employers in the coming months - either to schedule harassment prevention training or request that we investigate complaints of alleged sexual misconduct.

As discussed in my previous article, "Sunlight and Sexual Harassment," employers are now facing a beast the likes of which have seldom been seen before. For that reason, in my opinion, employers who have taken the NYR approach to harassment prevention are extremely vulnerable. Most often, they resolve to address the issue, rush to do something they've unrealistically convinced themselves will fix any existing problems and prevent future issues, and then do little or nothing to reinforce the lessons or eliminate inappropriate behaviors. This approach results in little more than a false sense of security for the employer.

Let's be honest. Until now the primary objective for most harassment prevention training has been to help defend against future claims, charges and lawsuits. The worst part? Employees know it's a rouse and treat it accordingly. I've lost count of how many times I've conducted harassment prevention training and had employees, managers and even senior management and owners act inappropriately and treat it like a joke. (That is, if senior management and ownership - often the people most at risk and with the most to lose in the event of a sexual misconduct claim - take time to attend the training.) I've also lost count of the employees who have thanked me for the training - and in the same breath told me it wouldn't stop the inappropriate behaviors they witness and experience daily.

Here are a few examples of comments from past trainings:

- Company president introducing me to the employees, "Sexual harassment is a topic we take very seriously, so I want everyone to pay close attention to this training. Unfortunately, I have an appointment for an oil change, so I won't be able to stay."

- Senior manager to several employees, "I'm glad we're doing sexual harassment training - now I'll know how to do it right!"

- Supervisor's contribution to a group discussion on how repeatedly asking a coworker for a date may be sexual harassment, "They may say no the first, second and even third time I ask them for a date, but once they meet . Mr. Johnson (holding his hands up in front of him approximately 18 inches apart), they're glad I didn't give up."

Now, imagine the backlash if employees had captured these incidents on video and posted them to social media? Or, turned the videos over to the EEOC or an attorney to support their harassment claims?

The time has come for a significant paradigm shift. Soon, the faces and names recognized around the world - the rich and famous who stand accused of sexual misconduct - will be replaced in the headlines by politicians, employers and others famous only in their local communities.

It's true that nothing can undo past transgressions. So, going forward employers must abandon old views and actions and take the steps necessary to prevent harassment from occurring in the workplace. Employees and managers will take harassment prevention seriously only when senior management sets the tone. Begin with implementing and consistently enforcing strong anti-harassment policies and stressing the importance of reporting harassing behavior. Then, take every allegation seriously, ensuring complaints are fully and properly investigated in a timely manner by a well-trained, unbiased party.

Inappropriate, harassing behavior should not be tolerated from anyone, including employees, regardless of their position. While it may be difficult to discipline - or even terminate - your highest producing salesperson, most experienced manager, or a member of the executive management team, their value to the organization will pale in comparison to the liability created by their harassing behaviors. Think about the damage done by Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, and many more who were once considered "too valuable" to hold accountable for their actions.

Training is still a vital component of any harassment prevention program. However, to be effective, every level of the company must take it seriously and participate actively. This is another area where senior management will set the tone. It can no longer simply be about providing training for the sake of saying you did so; it must now be about protecting your employees from harassment and sexual assaults.

Forget about online, video-based and other cookie-cutter training. To be effective, harassment prevention training should be conducted live by an engaging, experienced and knowledgeable presenter. The materials should be interactive, encourage participation, and customized to the company and audience. Once the training is completed, the lessons should be reinforced regularly to keep the information relevant and fresh in everyone's mind.

Developing and implementing a comprehensive harassment prevention program is an investment in the safety of your employees and success of the company. A small investment when compared to the costs of defending a single harassment suit (conservatively estimated at $75,000 to $150,000, not including settlement costs), low employee morale and high turnover, and the potential for a negative social media campaign that could destroy the company - or at least its reputation.

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Frank A. Cania, M.S.Emp.L., AWI-CH, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is president of driven HR - A USA Payroll Company. Located in Pittsford, NY, driven HR provides human resource consulting services including HR audits, outsourced HR management, employee handbooks, employee training, and a variety of other services. Frank concentrates on wage-and-hour, FMLA, ADA, Title VII, and Form I-9 compliance, as well as workplace investigations. This article is brought to you by the Rochester affiliate of the National HR Association, a local professional HR organization focused on advancing the career development, planning, and leadership skills of HR professionals.

Published: Wed, Jan 10, 2018

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