How to Encourage Employees to Report Sexual Misconduct
Ever since allegations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein surfaced in October and roiled the entertainment industry, a global movement has emerged empowering thousands of women — and men — to break their silence about their own experiences of harassment and assault.
These issues aren’t new, or course, but something new might be happening around these issues. The bombshell allegations — mostly centered on powerful men in entertainment, politics and media — have pushed many employers across various industries to start thinking more aggressively about how to protect their workers and their company.
We spoke to experts about how companies can foster environments where employees can feel more emboldened to report and discuss these issues.
Change Starts at the Top
Company leadership must first look at their own behavior, according to Karen Elliot, a labor and employment attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot LLC in Richmond, Virginia. The culture starts at the top, she warns, and leaders must be willing to examine whether they are overtly or inadvertently allowing or encouraging inappropriate conduct in the workplace.
Employees may feel they have no choice but to be complicit or seem accepting of inappropriate behavior.
“An honest C-suite evaluation is the first order of business,” Elliot said. “If there is a hint of inappropriate conduct from the top, no amount of training at the ‘bottom’ will change the culture.”
Enforce Zero Tolerance
A recent survey by car-selling app Instamotor found that many men aren’t clear on what constitutes sexual harassment. Out of the 750 men surveyed across the country, two in every three didn't think repeated unwanted invitations to drinks, dinner or dates was sexual harassment. One in five didn't believe sexual harassment was a fireable offense.
According to Elliot, company leadership must enforce a zero tolerance policy when it comes to inappropriate conduct by training employees who have been told to stop their behavior to stop immediately.
“This message must come from leadership and not HR,” Elliot said.
Susan Bartel, an associate professor of higher education leadership at Maryville University in St. Louis, said enforcing zero tolerance and supporting employees to report incidents will show women that they will be taken seriously if they come forward.
Women will only feel more empowered to report inappropriate conduct in the workplace when company leadership makes it clear that retaliation in response to reporting these issues will not be tolerated. Leadership must be present at all trainings and discussions on these issues to emphasize the severity and importance, according to Elliot.
Otherwise, Elliot said, management will see it as just another “check the box” exercise.
“Creating a culture of trust will take time,” she said. “Change will have to start from the top.”
Build Communication Skills
According to Elliot, many younger women and men are used to having difficult conversations over text message and email. So employers need to teach staff how to communicate face-to-face if and when these issues occur.
Employees will then become more comfortable with having tough conversations and immediately reporting incidents to the human resources department, Elliot said.
If a woman or another member of protected classes within the company is up for a review, a salary increase or a promotion, and someone in power has something negative to say about that individual, management should dig deeper and not just accept that statement at face value, Elliot said.
When companies develop processes around delving into an employee’s skills, knowledge and ability rather than generalized evaluations, they will begin building trust around reporting incidents without fear of career recriminations.
“The impact of rebuffing bad behavior is seen as career limiting,” Elliot said.
Assert Anti-Harassment Policies
Companies must do more than they have traditionally done to let employees know that sexual harassment and assault is a company violation with serious consequences, according to entrepreneur, author and speaker Loren Slocum Lahav.
This goes beyond having a policy in the handbook. All new hires should be required to sign off on their understanding of it. Companies should also consider scheduling anti-harassment training by a professional.
If anyone is found violating this policy, Lahav said the company must demonstrate its commitment to zero tolerance on sexual harassment and assault.
“It’s important to take a firm stance on this to assure any victims that their harasser’s behavior will not be tolerated by the company, and the wrongdoing will be acknowledged and reprimanded,” Lahav said.
Bartel added that, “Consequences must be real and have teeth rather than perfunctory.”
Establish a Process for Quick, Decisive Action
Companies must be prepared for the very real possibility that an employee will report alleged harassment by a coworker, according to Michelle Lee Flores, a labor and employment attorney in with Cozen O’Connor P.C. in Los Angeles. Company leadership should consider the potential ways they will be made aware of this information and what their response will be, both in the short-term and the long-term.
“Consider having a go-to employment counselor or advisor if or when it happens to assist in a plan of action to address it,” Flores said.
If companies choose to create an alternative internal mechanism for employees to report directly to a board of directors or an advisory council to address these claims, Flores said leadership should seriously consider including at least one practicing attorney in employment law to diversify the perspectives of reported behavior and the advice regarding what to do with such information and conclusions.
According to branding and neuro-human behavior expert Ali Craig, employees may be more likely to speak up and report incidents of inappropriate conduct if they know action will be taken. Companies should have a known process in place to respond to these types of reports quickly and decisively.
“Women need to know that this won't become a long and drawn out internal office drama,” Craig said. “While at the same time, men need to know that just because allegations are made, that it doesn't mean that the woman is always right.”
Create a Supportive, Inclusive Culture
Culture is at the core of all great companies, according to Lahav. Teams perform best when they feel part of an organization that fully supports them and has a positive vision. Companies should openly support any staff talking about interpersonal challenges at work, even if it involves a more senior employee.
“It’s vital for staff to know they will be heard without judgement from company leadership,” she said.
According to Bartel, a respectful and inclusive corporate culture must be in place in order for women to feel like they can speak out against inappropriate conduct.
“If women feel a part of the decision table, are listened to in everyday meetings and discussions and taken seriously in normal operations, they will feel more trusting their voice will be heard,” Bartel said.
Promote Unconditional Equality
Women experience persistent gender discrimination in the workplace. About four in 10 working women in the United States say they have faced discrimination on the job because of their gender, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data.
“It’s critical that equality is inherently maintained in the workplace,” Lahav said.
According to Lahav, women employees need to know they are seen as equals in the workplace and that their femininity is not perceived as inferior to masculinity, especially in male-dominated businesses. Companies should showcase their commitment to hiring individuals based on qualifications and providing equal pay. Thiswill help assure women that their gender won’t play a role in validating or handling their incident report, Lahav said.
Listen to Employees
Lahav said successful businesses show staff that their individual voices matter by consistently listening to and seeking out their questions, comments and feedback, and taking follow-up action when necessary.
This fosters creative ideas, allows employees to feel a sense of collaboration and builds rapport across the organization.
If employees believe management listens to and values their opinions and ideas, they will be more likely to approach a company leader to report issues and will feel safe in doing so. This also makes it clear to those who may try to take advantage of others.
Ensure Safety in Speaking Out
One of the biggest concerns for women speaking out about sexual harassment or assault is that others will immediately find out, according to Craig.
Although the #MeToo social media campaign has empowered some women to come forward, Craig said many women need to be assured they are safe to speak out and won’t be bullied or harassed for doing so, especially if they are working in the same office as the accused party.
“The fear of speaking up is engrained in us from an early age,” Craig said. “Often victims feel unable to speak up for fear of being ‘branded’ either humorless or a troublemaker.”
Companies should develop a way for employees to voice internal concerns without feeling exposed or like their private lives are on display for colleagues to see, Lahav said.
Managers need to keep their doors open, listen to their staff and respect their privacy. Smaller companies should consider using a professional employer organization, or PEO, to serve as an outsourced human resources department, giving employees a private space to share issues, according to Lahav.
“Experiencing sexual harassment can result in feelings of vulnerability and violation. It’s critical for a business to create a clear way for staff to share their concerns privately,” she said.
Redefine the Brand Culture
Employers should meet with an independent team as well as employees at different leadership levels within the company to review the current brand culture and the written handbook, according to Craig.
“Go beyond just updating the copy. Actively change the behavior between the various levels of leadership,” Craig said. “For example, no more special treatment just because ‘Bob’ has been with the company for 40 years.”
These types of changes take time, Craig added.
“We are asking men and women of different generations who each have been trained by society what is ‘business appropriate’ to learn different rules of engagement, but not lose the essence of who they are,” she said.
Bring in Inspiration
Craig said companies should frequently host speakers to share their own stories of overcoming challenges in the workplace. After the speaker shares their story, company leaders should host a Q&A to get employees involved and spur a more intimate group discussion.
“This will allow a timid victim to approach someone outside of the company culture they know understands their situation,” Craig said.