With media coverage of workplace harassment at an all-time high, there’s no question that the topic has become the focus of millions of people worldwide. Celebrities and high-profile executives facing a shocking number of accusations might be taking the spotlight, but this is by no means a topic limited to household names. In fact, 64% of Americans believe that workplace sexual harassment is a serious problem, up nearly 20% in the last seven years. Your employees are likely concerned, and that presents a serious liability to your organization. When it comes to reducing workplace harassment to create a healthier environment and limit your risk, there are several steps to consider.
Despite headlines that increasingly focus on harassment, it’s important to note that acts of workplace harassment are by no means a new phenomenon. Some organizations may boast a stellar record in this area, while others house a culture that tolerates harassment, allowing it to grow over the years and become a major liability. The shift in society is one where the reporting of harassment is becoming more common rather than the acts of harassment themselves.
While the movement to properly report harassment is long overdue and represents a positive step forward for victims, it leaves many companies scrambling, unsure how to react appropriately. This has spurred the EEOC into action, releasing new harassment training guidelines this past October, the very month that stories broke on movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Of course, there is one department in every company that should be looked to for guidance, best summarized in a quote from EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum: “A good HR office is the linchpin for an employer’s effective system for learning about harassment and then responding quickly and effectively.”
With HR leading the charge, the first area of focus should be overhauling policies. 98% of U.S. companies have some sort of harassment policy in place, but there’s a disconnect between the creation of those policies and the enforcement of them. In fact, 22% of employees don’t even know if a sexual harassment policy exists at their workplace, let alone what the policy states. Further, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed Public Act 100-0054 into law that mandates employers to have a sexual harassment policy that includes several distinct aspects. Effective January of this year, it leaves many employers currently unsure if they are compliant.
Once air-tight and clear policies are in place, an organization can then turn to training. Reducing workplace harassment requires awareness through proactive education. While it’s helpful to include harassment training within regular employee training programs, it’s a topic that should also have separate, focused training sessions to properly get the message across. Employees must understand what constitutes inappropriate behavior, repercussions for any offenses, and how to properly report harassment if they witness it. Managers and executives should receive additional harassment training so they know exactly how to respond as well as how to document the process in order to limit the company’s liability.
Despite your best efforts for reducing workplace harassment, there’s always the chance that accusations will arise within your organization. When they do, reacting quickly and appropriately is critical for limiting risk and liability. Other than the actual act of harassment that takes place, the single biggest harassment issue for organizations is fumbling their reaction to it. In many cases, there isn’t a concerted effort to cover things up but rather an ignorance that stems from a lack of preparedness. If a manager who receives a report of harassment on their desk doesn’t know the appropriate steps to take, they are more likely to file it away and assume someone else will handle it.
In reality, management must know exactly how to elevate a harassment claim appropriately, whether it means informing executives, the board, or even calling law enforcement. Your business will suffer less if the authorities come in quickly to address a harassment claim compared to if they ignore a claim and it resurfaces months or years later. Proper leadership at the top sets this mentality for the entire company. With management keen to act quickly, harassment doesn’t become a topic whispered about at the water cooler but one that is understood clearly in every department.
Now more than ever, the pressure is on companies, business leaders, and HR departments to do the right thing. The world is watching, and its heavy scrutiny means the days of special treatment, letting accusations slide, and victim blaming must be over. However, taking the right steps for reducing workplace harassment is a huge endeavor that often requires a helping hand.
When your HR department lacks the time or expertise to quickly take action, or if the risk and liability is simply too much to bear, a PEO can be the solution. Whether it’s to conduct proper harassment training or to take responsibility as your outsourced HR department, a PEO is a proven way to create a workplace environment where all employees are educated, feel comfortable, and know exactly how to react when harassment arises. The world’s response to workplace harassment is changing. Will you change with it?