Preventing Harassment in the Workplace

An essential function of a corporation’s human resources department is to create a safe working environment for all employees, yet many across the country experience some form of harassment every day.

A 2016 report released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed that up to 60% of workers had experienced racial or ethnicity-based harassment, and 58% of LGBTQ workers reported derogatory comments made to them. Reports of this behavior were also widely unreported, with 75% of respondents saying they never spoke to a supervisor or union representative.

According to a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey, one in three women have been sexually harassed at work. Of the women who responded to that survey, 71% said they did not report the harassment, and of those who did report it, only 15% felt it was handled fairly.

In 2017, allegations swirling around famous Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein put a new spotlight on harassment cases, and those cases going unreported. Intimidation and payouts were the main reason harassment victims didn’t report the issues, and the company itself has been accused of creating a culture that wouldn’t allow for harassment reporting.

Taking this case, and other recent high-profile harassment cases that plagued both Fox News and Uber into consideration, what can human resource departments do to foster a company environment that allows for employees to feel safe and secure in reporting incidents that make them feel uncomfortable?

Prevention is Key: Education, Communication, Policies

To prevent harassment issues, employers should take steps to educate employees on what harassment is and how to report it if they see it. According to the EEOC, employers can be held liable for harassment by a supervisor if it results in termination, failure to hire or promote and loss of wages. Additionally, if a hostile work environment results from the harassment, the organization can only avoid being held liable if it can prove a reasonable effort to prevent the harassment and if the employee didn’t take advantage of those efforts.

It’s in a company’s best interest, then, to have policies that allow for harassment prevention. This may happen through a strong onboarding process, regularly held seminars on harassment and coaching employees who show an issue with these behaviors. Also, the EEOC says employers should have an efficient complaint/grievance process and take swift action when a harassment issue is reported. If necessary, review the organization’s harassment policy with an employment law attorney to make sure all aspects are covered.

Establish a Strong Company Culture

Employees won’t report harassment if they feel uncomfortable or feel that their jobs may be in jeopardy if they do so. HR departments need to form a process for reporting that lets employees feel safe, and companies need to work to create a culture that allows employees to feel engaged as well as secure. A culture such as the one at the Weinstein Company can be costly; stress at work may cause more turnover, and replacing an employee isn’t cheap. Creating a safe culture is beneficial to not only the employees, but also the employer.

When Fox News faced bad press from the Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly harassment allegations, a misogynistic company culture and corruption rumors soon gave the company a reputation that no organization wants to fight.

Other companies can learn from this by working to foster a company culture that is inclusive of all genders and races. An inclusive culture can help discourage workplace harassment and create an environment that not only encourages tolerance, but also increases productivity.

Employee Engagement and Transparency: Best Practices

Creating a positive work culture, according to Harvard Business Review, comes down to six points:

  • Treating colleagues as friends and showing interest in them
  • Giving each other support and offer kindness and compassion
  • Not blaming others and understanding that mistakes sometimes happen
  • Creating an environment of inspiration
  • Making sure employees know their work is important and serves a purpose
  • Show everyone respect and trust

An HR department can work with the executive management team to implement these practices so they funnel down to all workers. Positive environments lead to better productivity and can help avoid harassment situations that create a negative experience for workers.

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