Addressing harassment in the workplace: get it right

Nicole Elgin
BridgeTower Media Newswires

We are all learning from the #metoo social movement. The report accompanying Time’s Person of the Year selection of “The Silence Breakers” is sobering and should be read as a call to action. Good employers know that the best way to stop harassment is to prevent it from happening in the first place, but one of the lessons from #metoo is that good policies and well-intentioned training have not been enough. Employers should make 2018 the year they finally get this right.

Recognize that strong anti-harassment and discrimination policies alone are not enough

First things first: preventing harassment needs to be in the spotlight. Put the policy in the front of the company handbook. Talk about it when hiring employees. In fact, talk about it all the time. Supervisors and managers need to read it and reference it in team or department meetings. Do not bury the policy somewhere after the inclement weather policy. Make it visible, important and understandable.

If some employees are not fluent in English, provide translations. Keep the language simple and understandable. Talk about more than sexual harassment, and provide examples so employees understand – things like excessive attention, unwelcome hugging, reports or questions about date night, name calling, uncomfortable nicknames, gestures, comics that make somebody else the butt of a joke. Set the bar high. This should not be a policy about meeting the
requirements of the law. This is a policy about how to treat the people we work with better.

Make sure everyone – including HR – is up to date on complaint reporting procedures

Good policies need to clearly identify how employees can report concerns regarding harassment or discrimination and list at least two people, by title, to whom employees can make the complaints. An even better policy explains that the company will investigate any complaints promptly, and that the information will be kept confidential to the extent possible while still allowing the company to conduct a thorough investigation. Policies also need to address how employees’ interactions on social media, even off the clock, may affect the workplace. Finally, effective policies emphasize that there will be absolutely no retaliation against any employee for reporting violations of the policy.

We often focus on having good policy language and making sure employees know where to report concerns about potential harassment or discrimination. Just as important, however, is making sure that management and HR are familiar with internal procedures in order to appropriately deal with those reports. HR needs to know what that initial conversation with the employee reporting the concern looks like, and some companies even teach HR professionals to practice trauma-informed interviewing to understand how to gain trust, ask information, and why the information is not necessarily conveyed in a logical sequence.

HR also needs to ensure that all complaints are investigated thoroughly, fairly and quickly – and to know when outside assistance might be needed. If minors are involved, there may be reporting responsibilities. Sometimes, even criminal conduct may be at issue. People accused may have complaints of their own. If the complaint cannot be appropriately addressed using internal resources, outside assistance may need to involve legal or trained investigators.

Start training – and not just the employees

Strong anti-harassment and discrimination policies are a good place to start, but there is no substitute for quality training. It is important to have regular trainings for employees, especially ones that reflect current issues of harassment and discrimination. A training presentation that has not been updated in a decade should be modernized. Outdated trainings show employees that the company either does not understand how to identify harassment and discrimination in the modern workplace, or worse, that the company is not invested in maintaining quality trainings on these important topics. Older training programs may fall short on how to address issues that arise after hours or through social media, but still affect the workplace. Good trainings help employees understand that they are all an important part of the solution: bystanders may also be able to intervene and should be asked to report.

Good companies also practice what they preach by having C-Suite trainings, manager trainings, HR trainings, and even train-the-trainers sessions. Additionally, the best companies often have a person from HR or management introduce the trainers and stay for the entire training to show how seriously the company takes these policies and trainings.

Be fair, be consistent and be prompt

Good policies, training and reporting procedures are ineffective if management and HR do not enforce them in a fair, unbiased and consistent manner. HR needs to take all complaints and investigations seriously. They also need to take the responses from the subject of the complaints seriously. A fair and thorough investigation will determine whether the complaint is, or is not, substantiated. Always keep in mind the goals of remedial action: putting an end to any improper conduct, ensuring that the past effects are remedied, and if appropriate, taking disciplinary action that is proportionate to any offense.

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Nicole Elgin is an associate with Barran Liebman LLP. Contact her at 503-276-2109 or nelgin@barran.com.

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