The recent #MeToo phenomenon has initiated a fair amount of conversation here at HRM.  Being an organization dedicated to helping our customers provide a great work environment, behavior that is harassing or abusive in nature really strikes a nerve with us.  There’s no question that these behaviors negatively impact organizations.  But how do you proactively keep them from happening, stop them when they do, and get employees comfortable enough to report them in the first place?

As an example, many years ago I placed a new employee into a department at a former employer.  Shortly after she started, she reported harassing behavior by her supervisor.  An investigation revealed a number of long term employees who corroborated her story and reported that the behavior had been in existence for a long time.  After the investigation, and ultimate termination of the supervisor, we circled back around to those long term employees and asked why they hadn’t said something sooner.  Their response?  “We thought you knew.”  It was an incredibly frustrating moment.

Knowing that the Human Resources function leads the charge to address these issues, we put together a few ways for HR professionals to eliminate these behaviors from the workplace.

  • Screen well. Background and reference checks are a great way to find out if an individual has engaged in problem behaviors in the past.  Since most offenders are serial harassers, this is a good place to start.  If a candidate can’t confidently give you the cell phone numbers of former supervisors, they weren’t a great performer and you should keep looking.
  • Make expectations clear. When each new employee joins the organization (and regularly afterwards) you should make it a priority to communicate your organization’s values and expectations.  These should be clearly stated in your sexual harassment policy and openly discussed.  Don’t assume that people know what professional behavior looks like.  It may be very different from what you would accept.
  • Address issues immediately. Leaders and HR should always be on the lookout for behaviors which aren’t in alignment with your organization’s values and should immediately address even minor transgressions.  Doing so will almost certainly head off larger issues in the future.
  • Get outside your door. Most places say they have an open door policy, but as we learned, that isn’t enough.  Leaders need to proactively engage employees by making themselves available and demonstrating a willingness to listen to concerns, no matter the source.  People are uncomfortable enough reporting issues, don’t give them any excuses for staying quiet.
  • Assess your culture. Have a systematic way to measure engagement in your organization.  Use a process that includes asking about harassing behaviors on a one-on-one basis.
  • Complete thorough investigations. When a complaint is received, ensure that it is investigated quickly, thoroughly, and that it is viewed as impartial.  Once completed, communicate as much as you can about the outcome to the concerned parties.  If it is not resolved to the satisfaction of the accuser, be certain to follow up at regular intervals to ensure nothing new has happened.
  • Conduct exit interviews in person. Even for grumpy ones.  It may be too late or not beneficial to save that employee, but it might just make the environment better for the rest of the team. Ask detailed questions about the work environment and perceptions of fairness.  Be open to feedback, especially uncomfortable feedback.

No one likes to hear that there is a problem in their organization and employees are typically reluctant to rock the boat.  Only by really looking for problems will you find them.  While doing so may feel counterintuitive, the lost engagement, extra turnover, and lost productivity will cost more than any proactive approach to identifying and addressing potential issues will ever be.

What are the best ways that you’ve found to prevent harassing behavior?  We’d love to hear from you!

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