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Legal

Addressing #MeToo in the Workplace and HR’s Response

Human resources leaders must take advantage of the dialog to help eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act, which protects employees against discrimination both in and out of the workplace, was passed in 1964. More than 50 years later, sexual harassment and discrimination are still prevalent, and employees are demanding change.

The past year brought to light numerous new allegations of behaviors many people thought were long gone. While there seems to be an epidemic of sexual harassment in certain industries, no industry is immune. Employees have lost patience and are demanding change through the #MeToo movement. Human resources departments are stepping up to join the conversation and take advantage of the dialog to positively impact organizations and eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination. Harassment and discrimination boil down to respect. Whether an employee is protected by federal or state law, companies with a culture of respect are going to be more successful in their efforts to eradicate harassment.

While companies may already have policies in place, employers can no longer assume that employees are exclusively treating each other in this way. Leadership and HR must take an active role in ensuring that respect is part of the daily culture and not solely rely on policies that merely fulfill compliance requirements.

Employers must think strategically about a focused plan surrounding diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace. This plan should include effective training, empowerment and leadership.

Training

In 2016, a report published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that sexual harassment training hasn’t helped to decrease harassment in the workplace. HR is left questioning, “Is it the training that has failed? Or is it the culture around the training?” If training is merely thought of as checking the box, then the EEOC’s findings aren’t surprising. But if employees are internalizing what they’re learning and it’s affecting the culture, then it can have a positive impact. To be effective, it takes more than implementation. Employees need to be held accountable for their actions beyond attendance of these seminars. Training can be the first step to institute culture change, but it has to be done right and be current with the times and the laws.

A successful training program should cover the key components of the harassment policy as outlined by the EEOC and any additional state-mandated guidelines. Managers should be equipped with additional resources on handling complaints, escalating complaints to the appropriate person within the organization and conducting investigations. Due to the importance and sensitivity of the training, it’s recommended that it be done in smaller groups and face-to-face, rather than through videos or webinars where employees could more easily tune out what is being said.

Empowerment

While training is the first step to educate employees about harassment and discrimination, as history has taught us, training alone isn’t enough. It’s critical that training and HR programs not only outline what to do when faced with harassment, but employees and managers are empowered to act as well. It’s become increasingly evident in the last year that employees don’t always feel comfortable speaking up. The common theme coming out of the #MeToo conversation has been that employees felt they didn’t have options and harassment was necessary to get ahead in their careers. Fear of retaliation was and is real, resulting in many employees not coming forward until the empowerment of #MeToo. Children are taught at a young age not to be bystanders and to stick up for others. Empowering employees in the same way is the key to changing the workplace culture to one of respect.

Lead By Example

Empowerment will only happen if the leadership of an organization embodies its core values and sets an example. Lip service to harassment policies isn’t enough. Employees need to see leadership and HR take action. A powerful employee can no longer be able to get away with it simply because of their stature in an organization. No employee, including top performers, are above the law and to truly create a workplace of respect, leadership needs to take action

The #MeToo conversation has sparked a shift in how we view harassment in the workplace. Employees are not willing to sit by and tolerate harassment. Awareness of harassment and the laws aren’t enough. Action has replaced reaction and HR is at the forefront of implementing this change. In the past, action around harassment and discrimination may have taken a backseat to other seemingly more “pressing” HR needs, and now these issues are taking a more front and center role through education, knowledge, empowerment and leadership.

Rebecca Blake is the managing director and Nancy Saperstone is the senior HR business partner and communications specialist at employee benefits company OneDigital. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.