HR managers should prepare for #MeToo harassment issues to hit their organization. We offer a discussion and concrete steps that Human Resource managers can take to be ready..
The #MeToo movement is a fundamental cultural shift, a watershed moment that is gathering steam by the day. Daily news reports expose more public figures disgraced for sexual harassment, abuse and misogyny. The movement is spreading like a wildfire through public and private sectors, including the film industry, the news media, the political arena, academia, the technology industry, the music industry and more. It seems unlikely that any industry or business sector will remain untouched.
Even for those who recognize the pervasive nature of harassment, it’s shocking to see the decades-long abuse by powerful, prominent figures, many of whom we held in high esteem. Some of the most prominent figures held to account after numerous accusations include: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly – just to cite a few. Alleged abuse was often papered over with hush money. Victims were cowed by non-disclosure clauses, fear of career repercussions and retaliation, and the very real potential that they would not be believed.
Somehow, the tables have turned and the oppressive veil of silence is pierced. Victims are being listened to and believed. Intolerance of such wrongdoing is reaching critical mass. Social media and websites like Glassdoor enable a public airing and forums for people to share complaints and gain support.
Human Resource practitioners must prepare for the likelihood that harassment complaints will increase as #MeToo harassment examples continue making headlines. If you have cracks in your organization, be ready for ugly secrets to emerge.
Tovia Smith talks about the role of human resource practitioners in her NPR feature When It Comes To Sexual Harassment Claims, Whose Side Is HR Really On? Smith discusses the tightrope that HR professionals often navigate in balancing the dual role of representing the rights of employees with the interests of the employer. Because of this dual role, many employees are reluctant to report abuse to HR. They worry they will be dismissed, ignored or, even worse, penalized for making a complaint. That’s particularly true if the complaint revolves around a senior manager or a star employee.
She notes that some companies try to get around this by outsourcing complaint investigation to law firms or other third parties. While Smith talks about reasons why outsourcing might not be ideal, it’s vital that organizations offer a trusted avenue for complaints that employees can view as impartial.
What practical steps can HR take to address #MeToo harassment issues?
First and foremost, try to get out ahead of it by taking action rather than waiting and reacting. Here are some things you can do:
Review EEOC guidance. See our recent post: How does your work culture stack up to EEOC’s guidance on harassment? which also includes many resources
Review your organization’s harassment policies. Ideally, conduct this review with the senior management team to discuss and reaffirm the organization’s policy. Include a discussion about your process for handling complaints in your workplace and the repercussions for policy violations.
Circulate your anti-harassment policies throughout the organization. Clearly state your organization’s serious commitment to a fair, respectful and harassment-free work environment. Remind people of consequences for violation of the policy.
Raise awareness about how people can report a complaint. Provide alternatives paths for reporting complaints.
Mandate harassment training. Start with intensive training geared to managers, but also extend training throughout all levels of the organization. Harassment is not something that occurs just with senior managers, it can be peer-to-peer. It’s important to raise awareness of unacceptable behavior, although training alone is not sufficient.
Make it clear that harassment is not just sexual harassment. It also encompasses unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
Ensure legal support resources are in place. You may seek legal input in your policy development. In addition, employment law attorneys could help in establishing a chain of consequences for policy violations.
Review your insurance coverage. Organizations spent more than $2.2 billion dollars last year trying to mitigate loses related to wrongdoing with Employment Practices Liability Insurance. This insurance offers coverage for legal costs related to harassment, wrongful termination, discrimination and more. It can also help to mitigate expenses related to reputational damage. (See More companies are buying insurance to cover executives who sexually harass employees)
Establish an HR crisis plan. Assign a team and develop a plan for harassment or any other HR issues that might go public and put you in the headlines. The team should include a senior manager, a PR rep, and have the resources of outside legal counsel, if necessary.
Use your Employee Assistance Program. A good EAP should offer a range of management and HR support services, such as:
- Harassment and compliance training
- Counsel by behavioral clinicians and SPHRs on complex any human resource issues
- Administrative Referrals to address unacceptable employee performance through counseling and document remedial actions
- 24-7 employee telephonic helplines for counseling and support