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Beyond Best Practices Subtract Harassment. Add Respect.

Dec 11, 2017

By Susan Rider —

Accusations and resignations, more accusations and even more resignations – how did we get here?  What brought us, we wonder, to this “perfect storm” around harassment in the workplace?  It is likely to blow over with the coming of the new year?

As insurance and benefits consultants, of course, we at Gregory & Appel help client businesses protect themselves with EPLI (employment practices liability insurance) policies, which cover employers against claims made by employees alleging not only harassment, but also discrimination based on sex, race, age, disability, wrongful termination, or failure to promote.

And, yes, we work with our clients to review potential loss exposures. We help develop employee handbooks detailing each company’s policies and procedures, and even help design job descriptions that clearly define the expectations for each job slot.

But, you know, this time I feel the situation is bigger than all that. I don’t think this “perfect storm” is going to follow the pattern of previous to-do’s, gradually dying out while the world returns to a “normal state”. This wave of harassment accusations, in my view, represents a fundamental “climate change”. Never again is our culture going back to the old ways of handling power and ethics.

And when changes this big happen, there are only two choices: we can be reactive, living in fear of the tsunami actually reaching us, or – we can be proactive and get ahead of the wave.

Truth is, in light of recent revelations, many of those best practices we talked about in the handbooks and journal articles and training seminars – well, they’re now “dead batteries”. We can see that they never really did the trick. An opportunity is being thrown upon us, a chance to remodel organizational strategies for dealing with harassment in all its ugly forms. I mean sexual harassment. “Quid pro quo”. Toxic environments. Bullying. Each of these is based on power. They not only increase your organization’s legal risk – they drain the lifeblood right out of your organization’s productivity.

Why pay so much attention to this “harassment thing”? Because the issues aren’t going away this time.  Because, in my view, at least, we’re at a pivotal point in America. Our past poor choices and offensive behaviors are coming home to roost. Finger pointing is useless - good guys are going down with the bad unless we together get out in front of the issue. It’s now or never, I think. Let’s do this.

Here are some basic steps to consider in strengthening your policies and practices:

1.  It’s all about power. Power is often at the heart of harassment and sexual abuse. Training should cover power in all its forms, and how to best handle power when it is misapplied.

2.  Diversity and Inclusion helps. If you promote civility and respect you will engender not only loyalty and hard work, but also an enviable culture that becomes part of your message to the public and your marketplace.  Training should include a foundation of diversity and Inclusion.

3.  Humans are complex – don’t treat this as a simple exercise.  People have hidden biases and complex psychological wiring. By crafting more careful messages, we can get better traction for behavior change.

4.  Do a cultural audit – Use modern engagement metrics, or hire outside experts to do a cultural audit to get a good “read” on your organizational culture and give you vital information to shape more individualized training. Training should focus on advanced communication theory and on measuring soft skills.

5.  Build trust in Human Resources. I predict that in the current climate of retribution, complaints will rise (there is a significant volume of harassing activity that has not yet been reported). Our national culture of retaliation against whistleblowers needs to be examined and remedied, and Human Resources needs to be seen as a trusted ally.  Does your HR staff have good business rapport with your employees? Is there a choice of individuals, both male and female, to whom complaints can be directed?

6.  Have high standards for your HR professionals. Hiring and promoting well rounded, empathetic and smart HR professionals is invaluable in maintaining solid trust with your employees.  Pay attention to their backgrounds, and recognize the certifications that are available that signal competence in the HR body of knowledge.

7.  Improve your training, in both quality and quantity. Most existing training materials attempt to change behaviors with threats and using fear tactics.  Plan ongoing “Respect in the Workplace” training (the rule of thumb is every two years) and make it interactive, engaging, and mandatory.

8.  Pay attention to your metrics.  Warning signs about toxic work environment may already be found in your HR metrics.  Look for turnover of high performing people by department – if a supervisor isn’t keeping the “good ones”, look deeper for the reasons. Those reasons might have nothing to do with harassment, but take a closer look.

Why strengthen your policies and practices? Let’s get personal.  Your brand reputation – that priceless, intangible perception that takes years to build - can be lost in an instant and communicated everywhere in social media.  Imagine the intangible costs to the Weinstein Company or NBC or Fox News, then swap in the name of your organization and imagine your own company’s personal losses.  Most important, strengthening policies and practices is the right thing to do.  Freedom from harassment? Why, that’s no less than a basic human right!

This “climate change” is real, and just beginning.  I look at this active shift of power in organizations as the time for leaders to take stock of their systems and step up their game. Leaders should see the changing social landscape as a time to reinforce their commitment to a sustainable high performing culture. Let’s see harassment, diversity, and inclusion as the foundational building blocks that they are. 

It goes beyond best practices. It’s about subtracting harassment and adding respect. Let’s do this.