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How Human Resources Departments Stay Vigilant on Sexual Harassment Problems

02 February 2018
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Amidst the cascade of sexual harassment claims and scandals emerge ways a culture of harassment can carry on in any workplace.

Turn on the news today and you’ll likely be hit with revelations about high-profile people getting taken down due to their sexual harassment behaviors in their workplaces. It can be a grueling experience to find out one of your favorite business leaders, artists, or other public figures conducted themselves in unprofessional and hurtful ways, but sexual harassment isn’t just committed by those in high, public positions of power, it’s managers, supervisors, and employees in offices around the world.

Other than people going to the Human Resources department to complain or file grievances, what are some signs that sexual harassment is occurring or will occur in your workplace? There are a few hard questions that the HR department should ask themselves, as well as a few signs to look for to head off harassment problems before they happen.

Is Your Open-Door Policy Truly Open-Door?

It’s necessary in most team-oriented work environments for the manager to have an ‘open-door policy.’ It’s pretty straightforward. Any employee can come by to speak to the manager about any issue they’re having at work at any time within reason. The idea is to make difficult conversations easier with better access to management, and to make the managers available to handle inter-office problems between employees.

There are a couple reasons, however, that an ‘open-door policy’ can be problematic, not effective at combatting a poisonous corporate culture, and instead leaving an open door for harassment.

One reason your ‘open-door policy’ might not be working is because employees find it difficult to talk about harassment in the workplace. It is and will always be a sensitive area for women to talk about their harassment experiences with anyone, especially if their manager is a man. The most open, sensitive, kind, compassionate male manager can still be difficult to talk to about harassment. That’s why there have to be other avenues of communicating with those who help end cultures of harassment in the workplace. The key in many instances is anonymity. Obviously, managers can’t go around blabbing about others’ problems told to them in confidence, but going further, allowing for anonymous concerns to be lodged with management frees some people from the anxiety of bringing up harassment issues. Just putting a comment box in the bathroom can be extremely effective in creating a safe, anxiety- and retribution-free space to air concerns about sexual harassment and other serious issues.

Another reason why your ‘open-door policy’ can miss sexual harassment issues is that your manager isn’t well-versed in how to deal with these issues. Sometimes, and I’m not calling people out or pointing fingers, managers don’t know what else to do besides sweep the issue under the rug. If they’re blind-sighted by accusations or reports of harassment, the temptation to try and hide them increases, leading to a culture enabling harassers to make work miserable for female employees. Managers have to be trained to not only know what to do when someone makes a harassment complaint about another employee to them (including how to confront the accused, how to report it to executives, etc.), but also how to be proactive in preventing these complaints in the first place. What are the signs of sexual harassment? What interventions can you take to prevent harassment?

Zero Tolerance Means Zero Tolerance

If your company has a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment and similar behavior, you have to stick to it. Even the most valuable employees have to be a part of this policy. Anyone who sexually harasses co-workers in a zero-tolerance workplace is gone. Only by sticking to this doctrine will sexual harassment become a thing of the past.

Turning back to HR’s role in all this, the HR department has to be there after every instance of sexual harassment and its aftermath to pick up the pieces. HR has to be authentic, honest, transparent, and perfectly clear about expectations going forward. HR is the basis for supporting a harassment-free workplace where everyone feels safe.

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Ben Renner

Ben Renner is an HR expert, writer, and Senior Editor of the Employee Communications Council. He has lived and managed his own business in Denver, Colorado since 2013. Connect with him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-renner-97708099/

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