Sexual harassment claims in the media are rising at an alarming rate. These growing allegations and the #MeToo campaign have given employees a safer platform to share their story and callout sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. While these shared experiences are prompting increased openness about discussing the issue, it is up to each organization to create an environment in which employees know that this behavior is unacceptable at the highest levels of the organization. Only then will employees be confident that it is safe to have this conversation and that they are encouraged to bring forward claims.

Many of the recent allegations in the media are truly shocking and reveal how often organizations were aware of these allegations and chose to silence the victims instead of holding the perpetrators accountable. This can be very concerning to many employees and some may be wondering where their organization and leadership stand on this issue.

Organizations who are proactively responding to this issue are sending a message to their employees that it is safe to bring forward their concerns and reinforces the organization’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Failing to address this issue head on could inadvertently perpetuate a culture of silence in which sexual harassment is not brought forward by victims or witnesses.

Don’t be fooled! Just because an organization hasn’t received a formal claim of harassment in the past doesn’t mean they are safe from future claims. This is a critical time for organizations to take a hard look at their culture, workplace behaviors, and policies to proactively assess areas of risk. Responding to these trends should be a top priority for every organization in 2018.

What You Need To Know. While "quid pro quo" cases make the most headlines, they are far less common than "hostile environment" harassment, where an employee is made to feel uncomfortable by the discriminatory or harassing behavior of another co-worker, client or customer. For harassment to be considered unlawful, it has to be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or results in an adverse employment decision, like the victim being fired or demoted. However, employers shouldn’t wait until it escalates to an unlawful level before taking action.

What You Should Do Right Now. Here are six (6) steps every organization should take right now to protect their employees and the organization from distracting workplace behaviors and expensive legal claims:

1)      Design and deliver customized harassment prevention training. Many organizations are tempted to quickly offer online, generic harassment training in response to these trends. However, this is not enough to address the unique context within each organization and provide the venue for dialog about the issue. Offering customized, onsite training provides employers the opportunity to reinforce their organization’s core values, reflect their cultural norms and share examples that are relevant to their work environment. This is a far more effective than asking employees to review a handbook or watch a generic online training.

Managers and employees need to be told different things during sexual harassment training, so we recommend keeping their training separate. Employees need to know the basics on respectful and professional behavior and where to turn if they are the victims of sexual harassment. Managerial training should focus on how to end disrespectful conduct, avoid liability, appropriately handle complaints, and reinforce anti-retaliation policies.

Following best practices, these trainings should take place within all new hiring onboarding and on an annual basis thereafter. Some states, like California, have even enacted these requirements into state law.

2)      Conducting effective and unbiased investigations. How an organization handles a complaint or even a whisper of sexual harassment has significant impact. Turning a blind eye or worse – handling an investigation poorly - will create more liability for the company. HR (or whomever in the organization conducts investigations) needs continued professional development on leading effective investigations to avoid legal missteps and ensure that each party is treated fairly and objectively throughout the process. While every employee has a right to come forward and lodge a complaint, every alleged harasser is also due the benefit of an objective investigation.

3)      Conflict resolution is a core competency. The goal of an anti-harassment policy and subsequent training is to prevent and remedy harassing conduct before it rises to the level of illegality. The first step in doing so is to encourage employees to attempt to resolve the conflict amongst themselves. Should an employee become uncomfortable with the behaviors of coworker, being able to tell them directly may be enough to quash the issue.

To build this skill in your organization, employers should ensure that harassment trainings are complemented with conflict resolution and active listening skill development sessions.

4)      Ensure your policies are legally compliant. If there was ever a time to ensure your policies are legally compliant, up to date and effective, now is that time. Beyond just citing the requirements of the law, anti-harassment policies should be customized and specific to your culture, work environment and operational norms. Here are four (4) key areas to include in your policy review:

·       Avoid legal-ease. Write your policy in a way that is easy to understand, reflects your company’s culture and outlines your workplace expectations while also stating the requirements of the law. Simply citing the legal definition is fine for lawyers but, without more context, provides inadequate notice to employees.

·       Use examples. It’s a best practice to include real-life examples of unacceptable conduct that is relevant to your workplace. Using behavioral examples that will resonate with your employees will provide the necessary context to avoid unintentional harassment.

·       Have a multi-option complaint policy. Companies should have two or more unrelated ways that employees can complain about harassment, discrimination or retaliation. For example, if your policy states to go to your manager, and that individual is the harasser, your policy is completely meaningless. 

·       Beyond employees. Do your employees work with customer, clients, vendors, or contractors on a regular basis? Your policy should emphasize that anti-harassment expectations and protections extend beyond just employees.

5)      Reinforcing a culture of respect. Respect is a basic human principle that applies to everyone regardless of their position, salary, gender, race, socioeconomic status and more. Creating a respectful work environment where all employees are valued and treated equally is the core foundation to a harassment-free workplace. Organizations should take this opportunity to consider how respect, equality and inclusivity are valued in their workplace. For example, are those words expressly captured in your organization’s core value statement?

6)      Top-level executive engagement. It starts at the top. To set the tone for the organization, top-level executives should quickly engage with the issue by preparing a well-crafted statement reinforcing the organization’s commitment to a harassment-free work environment and announcing the launch of a company-wide anti-harassment campaign.

Beyond legal ramifications, the business case for a healthy work environment is clear. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that, “in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in settlements every year, sexual harassment causes low employee morale, high job turnover, increased sick leave, decreased productivity and reputational loss. While written sexual harassment policies are a must at every organization, preventing sexual harassment involves much more from the top down. Prevention starts with an attitude by top-level executives that they will not tolerate any form of harassment.”

These efforts don’t have to change the essence of your culture! Friendly banter and humor in the workplace is an important part of creating a fun, desirable work environment. As such, we work with our clients to create a custom designed anti-harassment campaign that will balance cultural values and support personal relationships while establishing appropriate boundaries between fun and harassment.