The “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements have garnered attention in the media, the legal community, the workplace and the agencies who protect our workplaces. There is a new culture beginning to emerge in the era of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up.” How should employers respond?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports increased inquiries about potential sexual harassment claims and the agency is prepping its investigators through intense training and education for a rise in complaints. The legal community, for its part, reports an uptick in expectations and ever-increasing settlement demands. There is a lower standard emerging for what constitutes pervasive harassing behavior. Changes in legislation are anticipated to impact confidentiality agreements and business expense liability. Both entities agree: It is time for employers to make meaningful cultural change and approach harassment prevention in a whole new fashion.
First, employers should focus on preventing all types of harassment including sexual harassment and harassment based on any protected characteristic such as gender, national origin, race, color, age, religion, pregnancy, genetics, military status, disability, etc. Address the behavior before it escalates and consider behavior such as rudeness and incivility which leads to bullying and, left unchecked, leads to more pervasive, harassing behavior.
In other words, foster a work environment that is positive, comfortable and respectful. To do so, take aim at these areas:
- Leadership and Accountability: Establish a culture of respect in which harassment is not tolerated and make a commitment to assess harassment risk factors and take steps to minimize risks. Allocate resources and time to a harassment prevention program and train mid-level managers and front-line supervisors to prevent and/or respond to workplace harassment. Invest in best-practice preventive measures such as workplace climate surveys, training regarding civility in the workplace and bystander intervention training.
- Anti-Harassment Policy: Establish a policy that is easy to understand, regularly communicated, and clearly states harassment of any type will not be tolerated. It should be written in clear, simple words and in all languages used by members of the workforce. A comprehensive policy will include:
- A written description of prohibited conduct including examples.
- A reporting system for those who experience or observe harassment. The reporting system must provide a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation.
- A statement that identities of all (claimant, witness or target of the complaint) will be kept confidential to the extent possible.
- A statement that any information gathered will be kept confidential to the extent possible.
- An assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate corrective action if harassment has occurred.
- A statement that retaliation against an individual who reports a claim or cooperates will not be tolerated and will be appropriately disciplined.
- Complaint Procedure and Reporting System: This procedure should be available to employees whether they experience harassment or observe it. There should be multiple, readily accessible reporting channels. Employer representatives must be trained to: take reports seriously; conduct objective, neutral, thorough investigations; provide timely responses; protect the privacy of individuals to the extent possible; document all steps taken; take appropriate discipline action as warranted; and provide a reporting mechanism for individuals should they experience retaliation.
- Investigation Procedure: Establish a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation protocol. Once an employer has knowledge of a complaint, an investigation must take place. This should include:
- Meeting the minimum standard of the anti-harassment policy. Do what it says or more.
- Identify who will conduct the investigation. More than one investigator is preferred.
- In all cases, as information is gathered: Listen and document. Offer assurance of non-retaliation. Do not guarantee anonymity, but rather maintain confidentiality to the extent possible.
- Gather information from the complainant, witnesses and from the accused.
- Conduct an impartial review of findings and take appropriate corrective action if harassment occurred.
- Communicate the determination of the investigation to all parties.
- Training for Compliance: Establish a harassment prevention training program which provides bystander intervention techniques to teach people what they can say, and what to steps to take if harassment happens to them. A meaningful program will go beyond the legalese to focus on behaviors and non-verbal cues, encourage civility the workplace by stopping harassment where it starts, and promote a workplace culture that is positive, comfortable and respectful. Harassment prevention training should include:
- Examples tailored to the specific workplace and workforce.
- Education for employees about their rights and responsibilities.
- Using simple terms, a description of the reporting system.
- An explanation of the consequences of unacceptable workplace conduct.
- Encouraging managers and supervisors to practice situational awareness and address risk factors such as rudeness, incivility and bullying before the situation escalates to harassment.
Susan Price, Strategic Services Manager