Addressing Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era, Part 4
What has your organization done to ensure employees understand your commitment to a respectful, harassment-free workplace? How do you ensure leaders are sending the right messages? The fourth and final byline in our series will address those questions.
with co-author Sadina Montani
Trotting out the same tired training program used for annual (or less frequent) anti-harassment training is no longer enough in the #MeToo era. Employees expect more from their employers in support of an inclusive, harassment-free workplace, and management should respond accordingly. As employers consider ways to improve and update workplace training programs, the following are considerations and recommendations for taking workplace training programs to the next level.
1. Set the tone from the top.
More than ever, employees are paying close attention to how employers proactively and reactively address issues of harassment. Of course, leaders should model respectful behavior in the workplace. In the context of anti-harassment training discussed below, consider having a senior leader introduce the trainer and emphasize the organization’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Senior leaders should attend trainings like all other staff and should be mindful that others are watching. No leader should be glued to his or her smartphone or ducking out early. If an employer requires staff to attend workplace harassment training, but no member of senior leadership is seen participating in any of the training sessions offered, the employer will have missed a critical opportunity to convey the importance of its anti-harassment policy and the commitment of leadership to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace for all.
2. Live training is best.
Relying on generic, self-guided online training won’t cut it if you expect your employees to understand and comply with your policies. It also is a sure-fire way to allow employees to absent-mindedly multitask their way through the important educational components of workplace harassment training. Using an online training approach can communicate that the employer views anti-harassment training as a “check the box” exercise; consequently, so will employees. Instead, consider live training, conducted by internal staff or an external consultant or attorney. The right live trainer will deliver a dynamic, interactive presentation, create a comfortable setting in which questions can be asked and answered, and present the topic in a practical, culturally relevant way that resonates and connects with the audience. If it is not feasible to conduct live, in-person trainings at every office or facility, consider a live training session delivered via webinar. Employees should attend the webinar in groups, rather than alone in their offices where multitasking and distractions are more likely.
3. Deliver customized training to managers and employees.
The underlying purposes and goals of training sessions for managers and staff are different, and thus a customized approach is required for each group.
Managers should be educated on:
- Their heightened responsibilities for identifying and reporting behaviors or situations that may violate the employer’s anti-harassment policy.
- Their individual liability under some laws; for example, in Washington, D.C., individual managers can be held personally liable for workplace behavior that violates the local anti-harassment and anti-discrimination statutes.
- How to handle situations in which they suspect harassment may be occurring, but when they have not received a report or witnessed it directly, or where an employee reports a harassment concern, but asks the manager “not to tell anyone.”
“Rank and file” employees, in contrast, need to be educated on:
- The employer’s workplace expectations.
- How to identify when a potential policy violation has occurred.
- How to lodge a complaint.
- What their duties are as a bystander if they observe a policy violation.
4. Use the opportunity to update and recirculate the anti-harassment policy.
The best trainings focus carefully on the employer’s own anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies. Employers also should emphasize that the organization holds its employees to a higher standard than merely what is lawful. When preparing for anti-harassment training, consider whether recent workplace events may signal a need to tighten, expand or clarify current policies or procedures. Use the training sessions as an opportunity to distribute the relevant policies and explain the procedures to all employees. Republish the policy broadly after the training sessions are complete, ideally with an introductory message from senior leadership emphasizing the organization’s commitment to the policies.
5. Engage the audience with real-life, practical scenarios.
Employees gain the most from trainings that are practical, interactive and provide skills and tools they can take back to their workstations and implement in real life. Using hypothetical scenarios that illustrate the thorny, nuanced ways in which many workplace harassment situations arise is a great way to engage the audience and provide employees with the skills they need to address tough situations. Further, such hypotheticals can be used to demonstrate how the employer will address misconduct behind the scenes. Employees and managers who leave a training program feeling better equipped to handle challenging situations (and understanding how the employer’s procedures will work in practice) are more likely to feel the organization is committed to a harassment-free workplace.
6. Empower bystanders to speak up.
Of the many critical takeaways from the #MeToo movement, one of the most resonant has been the importance of creating a culture where employees at all levels of the organization feel safe and empowered to express concerns without retribution or being ignored or marginalized. Workplace harassment training is an important opportunity to convey how much an organization values employees who speak up when they see or hear of concerning conduct. The best person to lead this movement is a member of senior leadership, and the person who conducts in the abovementioned trainings should make sure he or she includes this critical invitation to all employees to “speak up.” If logistically and financially feasible, organizations should implement an ethics phone line to further encourage employees to voice concerns, even anonymously.
7. Educate employees on the meaning of your “zero tolerance” policy.
Another byproduct of the #MeToo era has been a tendency for many to improperly conclude that “zero tolerance” for workplace harassment means that anyone credibly accused of harassment automatically deserves to lose his or her job. As we discussed in our prior article in this series, “The Rights of the Alleged Harasser,” it is important to educate employees that everyone accused of workplace misconduct (including harassment) is entitled to a full and fair investigation. Employers should emphasize that workplace harassment does not have a “one-size-fits-all” remedy, and employees should be encouraged to raise concerns regarding unprofessional and potentially harassing behavior before it escalates to a fireable offense.
Employees should be trained to understand that in most cases, unless the alleged harasser is fired and removed from the workplace, any disciplinary action taken against the alleged harasser is not likely to be shared widely in the workplace, or even with the accuser. As noted above, anti-harassment training provides a good opportunity to educate employees regarding an organization’s specific procedures, including: (1) the employer’s investigatory process, (2) the need to take an individualized approach to each allegation of workplace harassment based on the unique facts and circumstances of each case, (3) the various types of disciplinary action that may result from a complaint of unprofessional or harassing behavior and (4) the importance of maintaining confidentiality with regard to any ultimate personnel decisions.
If we have learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it is that employees are watching. Employees watch the behavior of their colleagues and the manner in which their employers address harassment. They also are watching to see how committed employers and organizational leaders are to creating a workplace culture that values respect and dignity for all employees. Thus, the time is right for thoughtful, proactive, professional leadership and training on anti-harassment issues.