Hear the term “sexual harassment” and every employer breaks into a cold sweat. Nobody wants to think that their team members are capable of behaving in less-than-admirable ways, and the feelings of uncertainty about how to proceed can be paralyzing. Especially if allegations are unclear, it can be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, and hope things will settle down on their own.
But more than likely, by the time rumours or allegations of harassment reach the ears of management, significant damage to employee morale has already been done. A perfect example of this is Jean-Luc Brassard’s abrupt resignation as Canada’s chef de mission for the 2016 Rio Games. Brassard says he left because of frustration with the way the Canadian Olympic Committee handled the Marcel Aubut affair, and the lack of transparency on how (or if) the recommendations were implemented.
For employers, this just highlights the importance of swift and transparent action when allegations of sexual harassment arise.
So what SHOULD you do? Here are 5 proactive ways to confront sexual harassment in the workplace:
1. Provide workplace training. At a bare minimum, WorkSafeBC legislation requires employers to have a zero tolerance policy, to provide bullying and harassment training, and to implement clear procedures for reporting (Need a refresher? For the full checklist of what you need to be compliant, Click Here). Consider raising the bar by going beyond the minimum and investing in more robust training that focuses on healthy communication, diversity, and respect in the workplace.
2. Have confidential reporting systems. Provide platforms for employees to report their concerns, and ensure everyone knows what the process is, including the timelines for action. In addition to a general reporting procedure, ensure the process for filing complaints regarding a supervisor or manager is clear.
3. Communicate boundaries clearly. Prevent allegations of harassment and foster a culture of open communication by having clear guidelines for appropriate behaviour. Provide examples of unacceptable behaviour, so everyone is on the same page. Remember that humour is subjective, so make sure office jokes are funny for all audiences. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable, and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at work. Make sure your employees know they need to save the salty jokes and racy emails for outside office time.
4. Tackle the elephant in the room. Acknowledge the problem, and address allegations of sexual harassment as soon as they arise, before they become systemic. Document the situation, and ensure the proper process is initiated immediately. By not letting things fester, you’re sending a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated. As well as protecting employee engagement and potentially reducing turnover, you’re also reducing the likelihood that you’ll end up in legal hot water.
5. Conduct a thorough investigation. When an allegation arises, it can be difficult to separate yourself from the situation. The best case scenario? Have an unbiased, independent 3rd party or an HR representative properly trained in harassment investigation techniques conduct the investigation. All relevant parties will need to be interviewed about the claim, and an impartial investigator can provide the neutrality needed to get to the bottom of an allegation.
Your Engaged HR Assignment: Review your written bullying and harassment policy. Do you have clear and logical procedures in place for reporting general complaints, as well as a process for lodging complaints about management? If not, now’s the time to make some updates.