Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Al Franken. Steve Wynn. It seems like media reports are continuing to bring us heinous examples of sexual harassment and assault in workplace settings and the world at large. Unfortunately, these incidents don’t show signs of slowing, let alone stopping, any time in the near future.
What are the essential steps for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace companies can follow to protect their employees?
Despite the fact that ongoing efforts to provide training in an attempt to stem or slow harassment hasn’t worked—and may even have hurt—we know there are certain solutions to harassment in the workplace that companies can follow to have a dramatic positive impact on the workplace climate.
1. Hold all employees who commit harm accountable, no matter who they are.
No instances of sexual harassment or sexual assault should be tolerated in the workplace regardless of who is exhibiting the behavior—that includes senior ranks, rainmakers, and employees in hard-to-recruit positions. Those who harm others must receive prompt and proportionate discipline. And if that discipline is something short of termination, significant measures must be taken to ensure that the behavior isn’t repeated–and that no retaliation occurs.
2. Focus on professionalism rather than illegal harassment as the standard.
Every employee has their own unique threshold for interacting with others. While one employee may not be offended by an off-color joke, another may feel significantly offended. Because of this, instruct employees to keep their interactions “professional” – most can agree that an off-color joke isn’t professional and therefore shouldn’t be told at work.
3. Review workplace harassment policies regularly to ensure they’re up-to-date and relevant.
The world changes rapidly; new laws emerge; new learnings develop based on experience. Make sure you’re reviewing, updating, and communicating about sexual harassment policies on a regular basis.
4. Educate and inform.
Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t an event, it’s a process. Make sure you have ongoing efforts in place to provide employees with the information they need to ensure their behavior is above-board and skills to intervene or report problems and issues they observe.
Arm supervisors and managers with the information they need. Your supervisors and managers are in a critical role as the first line of defense. They’re the individuals that interact with and influence employees most regularly, and employees often emulate the language and behaviors modeled by them. They need to be armed with the information, tools, and support processes to help them fulfill their important roles.
5. Back off from the legalese.
Yes, there are laws that must be followed and certain, specific, information that must be shared. The vast majority of your employees aren’t lawyers, so don’t go overboard here. Try to root your behavior expectations in your company’s values, not legal standards.
6. Enlist employees as active allies.
Employees can influence each other and serve as important allies when building a culture free from harassment. Make sure that training efforts include information on this role coupled with support and resources to help employees be proactive bystanders.
7. Provide multiple channels for reporting.
Having the HR department, or immediate supervisor, serve as a point of contact for reporting may initially make sense, but what if an HR staff member or supervisor is the perpetrator of harassment? Having multiple ways for employees to report incidents—including anonymous channels—can help ensure that people feel safe reporting a concern–so you can know what’s going on and can take action.
8. Keep the drum beating.
Once is not enough. Keep the communication about harassment, your strong anti-harassment policy, and support for a positive and inclusive culture ongoing.
When a claim emerges, take immediate steps to investigate using a person that has no stake in the outcome. Ensure that the inquiry is objective, thorough, and provides due process for the subject of the report as well as the reporter.
If action is required, act. Employees will know when issues are swept under the rug, minimized, ignored, or otherwise overlooked. While you will likely not be able to share details, your swift action will send a strong message on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
Employees aren’t the only ones you need to be concerned about when it comes to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Depending on their roles, employees may also encounter vendors, business partners, and even customers who pose a harassment risk. Make sure that your policies and practices address this potential and that employees know what to do to ensure preventing sexual harassment in the workplace becomes normal.