By Danielle Smid, attorney, BrownWinick
As a part of the #MeToo movement and litigation that ensued therefrom, employers learned quickly that implementing a strict anti-harassment policy and harassment training for their workforce is imperative in preventing workplace harassment. But harassment and other forms of inappropriate behavior continue to reach epidemic proportions in the workplace. Employers must work to help their organizations prevent further or continued damage from such behavior.
Historically, harassment prevention training has been used as a defense mechanism against legal action, designed to discourage harassment by informing employees and managers of its illegality and how to follow the reporting process. However, training sessions on the definition and consequences of sexual harassment, while they may “check the box” from a legal perspective, have been shown to be ineffective.
A more effective approach is to focus on workplace culture. Developing a culture of inclusivity and civility will effectively help to eliminate harassment and bullying in the workplace. Creating a positive culture creates peer pressure for employees to act appropriately and correctly. Inclusivity should not be the responsibility of one person or department. Employers must build it into their company culture.
A couple of steps employers can take to promote a safe and healthy workplace culture include the following:
Empower employees to take notice
One of your employees is standing around the office microwave and a co-worker shares a derogatory joke, or a member of the hiring committee wonders aloud if an older job candidate has the stamina for a full workday. As a “bystander” or witness, what does the employee do?
It is common for people who hear an offensive comment to look around at nearby people or a passerby who could be offended – a female employee, or an older worker – to gauge their reaction. If no objections are raised, the employee witnessing the inappropriate jokes or comments may think such comments are OK as no one “seemed” offended. Everyone returns to work with no report being made, no action taken, and no prevention done.
Training our employees to instead have a “see something, say something” perspective will disrupt problematic behavior. Employees who see something or hear something in the workplace that makes them look around to see if anyone else saw or heard the same thing need to immediately recognize that that comment or action may be something that they should report or otherwise try to stop.
Training employees to “see something, say something” must include teaching them to 1) notice the situation; 2) recognize the situation as a problem; 3) assume personal responsibility to help change the situation; 4) know how to help; and 5) step up and help. Having a “see something, say something” perspective will become disruptive to ongoing inappropriate behaviors.
Focus on an inclusive culture
Employers must have the right policies, procedures and training in place, but those things alone are not going to change the culture. Victims and witnesses need to feel safe speaking up when they see harassment or other inappropriate behavior occur in the workplace. Otherwise, they will never come forward and the behavior will continue to escalate.
If an employee is always rude or inappropriate, leaders should approach them as they would an employee who is often late to work. Both behaviors negatively affect that employee’s performance as well as their co-workers’. When employees see that leadership will not tolerate harassing or inappropriate behavior in any form or to any degree, they will feel more comfortable calling it out to their managers or human resources or to the individuals themselves.
The cornerstone of a successful harassment and inappropriate behavior prevention strategy is the consistent and demonstrated commitment of leadership to create and maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated. This commitment must not only be shown through policies and procedures, but in leadership actions in disrupting and reporting such inappropriate behaviors.