The movements bringing attention to instances of sexual harassment against women in the workplace continue to gain momentum — with their latest boost coming courtesy of the Grammy Awards on Sunday night.
Ahead of a moving performance by Kesha, Janelle Monae delivered a stirring speech in support of #TimesUp: “Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry. Artists, writers, assistants, publicists, CEOs, producers, engineers and women from all sectors of the business,” she said. “We are also daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and human beings. We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s up.”
Seeing the campaigns — starting with #MeToo — garner national attention is an encouraging first step, but ensuring that the messages aren’t restricted to popular on-stage talking points or trendy hashtags is crucial.
Where businesses are concerned — both movements arose from a need to better protect women at work — being on the right side of history means reassessing their strategies and policies to ensure that they’re ironclad when it comes to sexual misconduct.
While it will take some time for firms to figure out exactly what that looks like, perhaps knowing what it doesn’t look like is a helpful jumping-off point.
Here, four mistakes companies can’t afford to make in the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo.
Not Properly Disseminating the Sexual Harassment Policy
“Company policies are like the terms of service for your favorite social media app,” explained Piyush Patel, a company culture expert and author of forthcoming book “Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work.” “Your employees might sign and agree to them when they enter, but that doesn’t mean they’re understood. They’re probably not even read.”
Not only can such an ineffective dissemination strategy make people more vulnerable to mistreatment in the workplace, it could also make a company more culpable in a court of law should misconduct occur.
“When you stick a policy in a handbook and say, ‘Yes, we’ve disseminated it,’ I think it would be fair for [the opposing] lawyer to say ‘Well, wait a minute, is that really a serious policy, and is that a [reasonable] attempt at making people aware of what the policy is?’” explained Linda Vogel, strategic legal counsel focused on employment law and former chief legal counsel for Aerosoles. “I think [such a strategy] is absolutely insufficient. It’s not meaningful to just have the policy in the handbook, and it doesn’t show that the company is serious about having a cultural change [post-#TimesUp].”
Training Only Select People
While many companies hold formal management training sessions about appropriate workplace conduct, many of them have missed the memo about training people who are ranked lower on the totem pole — and are perhaps more likely to be the victims of misconduct.
“There should be sexual harassment training for both employees and management — and every layer of management should have the training and be aware of the policy,” Vogel said. “I know it sounds burdensome, but you don’t have to do it all at one time — you can do it in groups. It’s also OK to have groups integrated — you don’t have to have separate silos with management and employees. [When it comes to sexual misconduct,] everyone in the company — including managers and field associates — should know what to do.”
Misinformed Human Resources & Legal Departments
All too often — since they too are employees — human resources professionals may mistakenly believe that they are to act only in the best interest of the organization. But Vogel suggests that such a view is erroneous when it comes to sexual misconduct claims in the workplace.
“Here’s the hard part: As an HR entity, you have to be aware of everybody’s rights,” Vogel explained. “You’re balancing the rights of the complainant, the rights of the accused and the rights of the company. Those are the three competing interests.”
And from the HR stance, the modus operandi should be fairness to all three.
What’s more, if a sexual harassment complaint is settled, Vogel suggests internal legal departments move away from the practice of making complainants sign nondisclosure agreements.
“NDAs silence people, and the company then becomes complicit and is actually protecting the harasser,” Vogel said.
Not Recognizing the Power of Precedent, & False Promises
In addition to creating and disseminating a robust harassment policy, Vogel recommends that companies take added measures to assert their stance to employees — in turn setting a precedent for how misconduct is handled.
“Create a history — starting today — of committing to addressing this seriously and letting people know that you will create a safe haven for them to lodge a complaint,” she said. “If employees actually see and feel that happening, you’re creating a different environment. If you don’t do that, we’re going to continue have problems.”
Another important point Vogel makes is that HR and other first points of contact for potential victims should be wary of making false promises.
“Make it clear to the complainant that you hear them, that the company takes it seriously and you’re going to take steps to look into this,” Vogel explained. “What you should never say is, ‘We’re going to fire the guy or have the company do this or that.’ You should never promise anything until you investigate.”