7 Ways HR Help Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The #MeToo movement has shone a light on the prevalence of sexual harassment in modern life. While only a few companies have a Weinstein or a Cosby, unfortunately, too many companies in the past let minor harassment go ignored. That, fortunately, is coming to an end.

We are moving past stereotypes and victim-blaming and becoming not just active about punishing sexual harassment after it happens, but proactively creating a safe working environment that empowers employees instead of isolates them. Here are some useful tips for fostering a healthy, safe workplace.

1. Go Beyond Training

Training has to be seen as being helpful, not a punishment. Recently, Starbucks closed every single location in the middle of the day to have a class on cultural sensitivity. While it is admirable that a company will take steps to correct a misdeed, it would have been even better had there been an ongoing conversation about this topic, rather than an emergency shut-down of all stores. The definition of sexual harassment is something that should have an ongoing discussion; the definition, according to the federal government, can include can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

This can range from as seemingly innocuous as playing suggestive music to outright threats of being fired for not having sex with another employee. Since this is a little vague, and the law even has language in it that leaves some leeway for “teasing,” it’s important that if any action by a toxic employee makes another employee feel like they are in hostile work environment, then that action should be reported immediately. What makes an employee uncomfortable is not necessarily subject to specific threshold, but as part of a larger conversation between staff members, which HR should listen to and take suitable action where appropriate.

2. Have No Tolerance for “Whataboutism”

Whataboutism is a new word to describe an age-old phenomenon: when someone is accused of doing something wrong, he or she says “What about…” and lists something someone else has done wrong. This can, of course, be a person in the past or in the present, famous or personal, in politics, business, or entertainment. Push back against it by focusing on the matter and instance at hand.

A few key phrases to bring up in a discussion may include:

“I don’t know if that’s accurate, but we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about you.” “That may be true, but you should hold yourself to a higher standard.”

“You know who says ‘What about…?’ Children.”

“Would you rather be part of the problem or the solution?”

3. Have No Tolerance For Harassment, and Even Less For Retaliation

Actress Anna Faris once related a story on her podcast, “Unqualified,” of how, on a movie set, a member of the crew slapped her behind so hard everyone on the set could hear it. She felt pressured to shrug it off, knowing that the hundreds of actors and crew on set would lose work should the production grind to a halt to run a formal investigation. Many in the workplace face some version of this question: Is it worth it?

When taking action about sexual harassment, be on the lookout for any retaliation from other members of the staff that are affected, and be sure to frame it as the harasser’s fault — not the victim’s. Imparting this attitude can be part of the sexual harassment training. That is how you effectively ensure employee happiness and reduce retaliation right on it’s tracks.

4. Make It Easy to Report Harassment

Ensure that your company has multiple methods of reporting sexual harassment, including anonymous reporting. Be sure that whatever these avenues are, they should be well-known to the employees. For example, include these methods on your employee handbook, on your web site, and on your local intranet.

On a related note, make it clear that there is no such thing as a high threshold for harassment.

Anything that makes an employee uncomfortable may be reported. This goes from the classic “Sleep with me or lose your job” harassment to staring and unwanted, “accidental” touching. Harassers continually push the limit to see what they can get away with, and harass many people in small ways before finding a target to make a big move on. Early action on small acts may prevent a future larger one.  

5. Be Proactive

HR departments are in a unique position when it comes to sexual harassment: it’s their job to ask how employees are doing. In any kind of performance review, it’s also the employee’s chance to give feedback on the company. Although ideally an employee would feel empowered to go to HR at any time, victims often feel pressure to downplay an incident, particularly if it’s less of an overt gesture, and more implied–an example being playing suggestive music that makes an employee uncomfortable. Part of HR’s responsibility is to ask about any of these smaller incidents to see if they, knowing a more complete picture than any one employee, notice troubling patterns so they can step in before it gets worse.

A few examples may be:

  • » “Have you at any point felt like you’ve been sexually harassed by a boss or employee?”
  • » “Have you seen something that made another employee uncomfortable?”
  • » “Did anything ever happen to you that you were fine with, but might have been a problem if it happened to someone else?”
  • » “Do you understand how to file a sexual harassment claim and what your options are?”
  • » “If you remember anything later, feel free to stop by and tell us.”

Furthermore, by asking rather than reacting, It also sends a message that HR cares about harassment in the workplace. Again, one of the most important things to keep in mind is that the employees feel protected from retaliation when making an accusation. HR must also protect the identity of a victim of workplace sexual harassment by keeping their report anonymous.

6. Establish Company Norms Early On, and From the Top

In the past, sexual harassment, especially minor forms of it, was shrugged off or awkwardly laughed off. Tolerance for bad behavior is fortunately shrinking, and a major part of this success is that many companies have successfully created an atmosphere where punishment for bad behavior doesn’t come exclusively from HR, but from everyone in the office.

Companies that are successful at creating this atmosphere have all the staff, or at least all senior staff, regularly attend training sessions on what behavior is not appropriate, and what realistic steps to take if and when one either witnesses or is victim to sexual harassment. It is important to communicate to employees early and often what the proper procedures are if someone is experiencing unwanted sexual advances or receiving inappropriate remarks, so it is less likely to escalate to full-on assault.  

7. See Beyond Labels and See People

This article has probably made you imagine a heterosexual male harassing a female. It is also equally important to recognize that anyone can be a victim of harassment, whether they’re male or female, straight or gay, or if they identify as somewhere in the middle. Many workers who are LGBTQ are particularly vulnerable to harassment, sexual or otherwise. And even straight men in high positions within the company are not immune to sexual harassment. It is important to take every report seriously, and investigate with a goal of finding the facts — not working backwards from an assumed answer.

If there is one goal for HR departments, it is that they are seen as “the good guys,” and not looked at as another obstacle. HR within a company should do everything they can to be seen as a place to go to for help, not the department that keeps employees from reporting sexual harassment. They should, ideally, be seen as quick to act, but still impartial. If an issue is resolved with the accuser, and if ever possible, even the accused, thinking, “That was fair,” HR has done its job well.

Author Bio

Reuben Yonatan
Reuben Yonatan is the founder and CEO of GetVoIP -- trusted VoIP comparison resource that helps companies understand and choose a business communication solution for their specific needs. Reuben assists SMBs align business strategy with culture and improve overall corporate infrastructure.