Let’s say one of your employees was at work when the CEO walked in to shake their hand. Everything was amicable until he leaned in and whispered something inappropriate. Your employee was uncomfortable and reported the incident to you, the head of the HR department. What do you do? Do you give him a free pass because he’s the CEO? You need to carefully consider whether what happened violates your sexual harassment policies and follow your procedures. To prevent sexual harassment at work, even if the CEO is involved, you need to take it seriously. Let’s talk about how your HR department can do this.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “ unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Although women in particular struggle more commonly with sexual harassment, everyone can become a victim, regardless of gender.
It’s no surprise that between 2017 and 2018, in the wake of the #metoo movement, the EEOC saw a 14% uptick in the number of sexual harassment claims filed with them. The #metoo movement had forced people to stop and seriously think about the issue, which itself had dominated media. And it worked. #metoo got people talking and gave them courage to share their stories and report complaints.
Society has recognized that there’s a big problem. Now, we’ve all got to work to address that problem.
Develop Policies and Procedures That Build Trust
Dr. Tana M. Session, an HR consultant and public speaker, emphasizes the value of trust.
When I asked her what advice she’d give to HR departments, she said, “The HR department must serve as the leader in preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. There needs to be a high level of trust and confidentiality between the employees and their HR team.”
HR can build trust in a few different ways, starting, Session said, with strong policies and procedures. Accountability is likewise important.
“Holding all employees accountable to these policies, regardless of their level in the organization, will help build trust for the HR department,” she said.
That’s important to keep in mind. All employees need to be held accountable.
The bottom line: Employees need to trust they can voice sexual harassment complaints. And that the policies and procedures ensure victims protection and violators consequences.
Avoid Only ‘Checking the Boxes’
Federal and state laws help to prevent sexual harassment at work, but they should never be the only reason your HR department prevents sexual harassment. Honestly, doing everything you can to prevent sexual harassment just makes good, human sense. No one wants to work in a hostile environment.
That’s why you must do more to prevent sexual harassment than just checking off requirements as you go.
One way to do more is to ensure your employee training isn’t routine or boring. Nate Masterson, the HR Manager for Maple Holistics, advocates use of virtual reality in sexual harassment training.
“VR training is a way to safely put people in the situation to see how they would react in the event of sexual harassment,” he said. “And it’s not just able to be used for victims. Many of these programs are also teaching employees how to react if they become witnesses to sexual harassment.”
Whether it’s VR training or something else, a little creativity can go a long way.
Enforce and Maintain the Policies and Procedures
Let’s admit it. That sounds a little obvious. Still, I feel this needs to be emphasized. It’s really not enough to have the policies in place. There’s a lot of work and effort that goes into enforcing and maintaining them.
Treat your policies and procedures as works-in-progress, consistently updating them and ensuring that your employees know the changes.
Here’s a recommendation for reviewing your policies from Diane Stegmeier, CEO and founder of Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now).
“If a policy has already been established, a holistic review of the verbiage should be conducted, ensuring mention that people at all levels of the organization will be held accountable for sexual harassment as well as the other types of behaviors mentioned above,” Stegmeier said.
Another important component of policy maintenance and review is communication, which should contain a consistent and clear message that cascades from the top, at the CEO level, down to employees, according to Stegmeier. Communication isn’t about just sharing the policy. It’s about articulating purpose and organizational commitment to maintaining a safe workplace to everyone’s benefit, Stegmeier said.
Of course, when complaints are filed, always follow-up with both parties, and make sure procedure is followed per the policies. There really isn’t legroom for deviation, if you want to build trust and retain your employees.
Sexual harassment can happen in any workplace to anyone at any level, but you can do a lot to prevent it when you make strong policies, treat it as more than a line item, and keep up the diligent work. If the CEO, who should be setting the tone for the entire organization, gets a free pass, the whole thing falls apart. It’s important to make sure there’s trust from the top down. Take a look at your policies. Can your organization do more to prevent sexual harassment?