Compliance Blog

6 Steps to Combat Workplace Harassment

February 24, 2022 | Maggie Smith

workplace harassment

This article by Traliant VP of Human Resources Maggie Smith was originally published in BenefitsPro.

Whether employees are in the office or remote, providing an environment that is free of harassment should be a top priority.

Amid a global pandemic and the Great Resignation, creating a safe and healthy work environment has never been more important. Along with offering flexible work options, employee assistance programs, wellness benefits and other perks, a strong harassment prevention program should be top of mind. Whether employees are returning to the workplace full-time or remaining in a remote/hybrid model, providing a work environment that is free of harassment can help organizations compete for and retain talent, improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety — and avoid costly claims.

Unfortunately, workplace harassment remains a pervasive problem. A recent survey of full-time US employees found that 44% have experienced harassment in their workplace, with 34% reporting they left a job in the past because of harassment issues. The virtual workplace isn’t immune — nearly 38% of the respondents said they have experienced harassment through email, video conferencing, chat apps or by phone. Further, 24% believe that harassment continues or worsens through these remote channels.

As part of a comprehensive strategy to create a safe, respectful workplace in which employees can thrive, here are six ways to keep workplace harassment prevention front and center:

1. Set the right tone from the top

Employees look to their CEO and managers to lead by example and communicate through their actions that preventing harassment is a high priority and everyone’s responsibility. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) task force on workplace harassment said that one of the core principles of preventing workplace harassment is “the consistent and demonstrated commitment of senior leaders to create and maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.”

2. Ensure employees know how to recognize harassment

Organizations can’t assume that people know what behaviors cross the line into harassment. We’ve all experienced employees and managers who thought that something they said or did was “just a joke.” Workplace policies, codes of conduct, handbooks, training and ongoing communication should make clear what is and isn’t acceptable behavior and the negative consequences of misconduct.

The EEOC defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity or pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, physical or visual harassment of a sexual nature. Under the EEOC, there are two forms of sexual harassment and both can occur in any setting — onsite or remote/virtual. They are:

  • Hostile work environment harassment: This is unwelcome sexual conduct that “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance” or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
  • Quid pro quo (something for something) harassment: This involves a manager, supervisor or others in a position of authority, and occurs when employment decisions (such as getting a promotion or bonus) are based on whether someone accepts or rejects unwelcome sexual conduct.

3. Provide training that’s relevant for today’s workforce

One of the key takeaways from the #MeToo movement is the need for a more modern, behavior-based approach to check-the-box harassment training. Effective training should reflect the new, complex world of work. This includes tailoring content to the organization and its workforce, raising awareness of different types of harassment and discrimination and teaching bystander intervention techniques. Bystander intervention training is considered one of the most effective ways to empower employees to stop harassing behavior, show support for co-workers and prevent future incidents.

For many organizations, providing sexual harassment prevention training is now the law. To date, seven states have enacted anti-harassment laws that require employers to train employees and managers — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York/New York City and Washington State (for certain industries).

4. Raise awareness of unconscious bias and microaggressions

Unconscious bias and microaggressions that are based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, worldview or other characteristics can negatively impact recruiting and retention and DEI, cause employee health problems and burnout — and, if left unchecked, lead to unlawful harassment.

recent survey of DEI leaders we conducted with WBR Insights found that 58% of respondents have defined and trained teams to identify unconscious bias and microaggressions. While this is a positive sign, more leaders should take steps to raise awareness of these barriers to inclusion and the benefits of cultural competency and empathy for the experiences, backgrounds and cultures of others.

5. Offer multiple reporting options

Everyone in an organization should know how to report harassment and other misconduct. While, generally, employees should first have a conversation with their manager, HR or another executive, it’s important to have different reporting channels, such as anonymous hotlines, surveys and other tools and resources that are easy to use and accessible 24/7.

The best reporting tools, however, aren’t effective if employees don’t use them because they fear retaliation. Managers and employees in supervisory roles should be trained on how to respond promptly and appropriately to complaints and recognize and avoid even the appearance of retaliation against individuals who report workplace misconduct.

6. Make time for conversations

It’s a good idea to mix in live virtual or in-person trainings and educational sessions with groups of employees. This creates opportunities for people to listen and learn from each other and spark conversations that can continue long after the session is over. One-on-one check-ins, monthly anonymous surveys and online suggestion boxes are some other ways to take the pulse of employees, surface issues and get real-time feedback.

And with the increased focus on mental health and wellbeing, consider partnering with experts in areas that are important to your organization and employees. HR can’t do it all. There’s a network of mental health and wellness experts out there who can tailor programs to fit your organization.

As HR and benefits professionals prepare for the evolving challenges of the workplace in 2022, addressing and preventing all forms of harassment should be part of any strategy to improve DEI, attract and retain talent, foster employee trust and psychological safety and create an ethical work environment of respect and inclusion.

Maggie Smith, VP of Human Resources at TraliantMaggie Smith is the Vice President of Human Resources at Traliant, a provider of online compliance training to help organizations create ethical workplace cultures of respect and inclusion. With more than 20 years of experience in HR, she is always seeking new and better ways to balance business goals with the needs of employees.

 

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