Make Sexual Harassment at Your Office Stop
When everyone laughs at a dirty joke, you probably don't think anything of it. After all, every television show you've ever seen shows the office as the correct place for sexually charged humor. But your office isn't The Office and someone who habitually tells dirty jokes can create what is called a "hostile environment." Even if everyone is laughing, someone may still be offended, and that's the legal standard. If a reasonable person could be and is offended, you've just crossed into sexual harassment.
You need to ensure this doesn't happen in your office. I spoke with Jimmy Lin, vice president of product management and corporate development at The Network, a firm that specializes in compliance issues. Sexual harassment training does come with some pitfalls. Here's Lin's advice--starting with what not to do:
1. Provide training without buy-in and support from senior leaders. Your people need to see that training is important to the organization and that senior leaders take it seriously.
2. Focus too much on rules, rather than encouraging respectful behavior. Training can't be reduced to a recitation of rules or laws. It should articulate your organization's principles and expectations and inspire employees to live up to them.
3. Assume that employees understand how to apply to harassment policies in everyday life. Employees need to see character-driven scenarios that show how those policies affect their work life and how a respectful workplace benefits them.
4. Assume that training is enough. Pushing out training from time to time rarely creates the kind of workplace most employers want. Training should be supported by other communications and awareness resources that broaden and reinforce your message.
Lin uses the word "assuming" quite a bit. That is a concept that needs emphasis in sexual harassment training. While some people are deliberately making sexually charged comments to purposely intimidate their co-workers or employees, many are just assuming that everyone thinks they are funny or that everyone enjoys dirty pictures. Your training needs to address these things so that assumptions don't end up causing your business legal problems.
Lin's advice for what you should do to implement good harassment training:
1. Focus on the good. Present scenarios that concentrate on appropriate behavior rather than just showing bad behavior.
2. Show benefits. Demonstrate the benefits of a respectful workplace and how bad conduct can affect the organization and its people.
3. Remember the gray areas. Focus on fuzzy areas and unintended harassment and present lessons in a contemporary, fresh way. If using off-the-shelf training, make sure you can include company-specific information and branding so it speaks to your audience.
4. Keep it current. Update and refresh the training on a regular basis. Delivering the same training every year can create fatigue and lack of interest.
Even if you have appropriate training, you may end up with incidences in which employees feel they have been sexually harassed. You need to have a plan in place to deal with those situations. Here, again, is Lin's advice:
1. Have an open door. You should always encourage employees to go to their managers or the appropriate human resources, legal, or ethics and compliance leaders.
2. Allow anonymous complaints. You should also offer an anonymous third-party hotline for those who may be uncomfortable coming forward.
3. Encourage information-gathering. Employees should understand that they will need to provide as much information as possible and that the organization will investigate the matter. Specifics in terms of persons involved, dates, locations, and any documentation will help the speed and quality of the investigation.
4. Attempt confidentiality. Workers also need to understand that the employer will try to maintain the confidentiality of the information--but that it will have to be shared and discussed with others in order to fully investigate and address the issue.
Whatever you do, don't assume that you're too small or that all your workers are such good friends that that you don't need to worry about sexual harassment in your office. You do. Start thinking about it now.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.