Originally published in NAVEX Global's Top 10 Ethics & Compliance Trends for 2019 eBook.
Even after more than a year with the #MeToo Movement, complaint numbers remain strong. Preliminary numbers for 2018 show an increase in sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC. Employers are seeing an increase in complaints as well, according to the NAVEX Global 2018 Hotline Benchmark Report. Another survey found that “about a third of men said they had done something at work within the past year that would qualify as objectionable behavior or sexual harassment.”
This is not for a lack of trying. Over the past year, much has shifted in the way we talk about, experience, and evaluate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many powerful men have been held accountable for their actions; Wall Street has developed “the Weinstein Clause” to protect their financial investments; and states across the U.S. have banned non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in matters of sexual harassment.
These reactionary efforts can be seen as window dressing, and not doing enough to achieve real change – the change that accounts for the human side of harassment.
#MeToo has demanded action, and we are seeing action. However, much of this action is fueled by the desire to mitigate corporate reputational damage caused by harassment. These reactionary efforts can be seen as window dressing, and not doing enough to achieve real change – the change that accounts for the human side of harassment.
Employers who are serious about addressing harassment in 2019 will need to dig deep, and work on two fundamental flaws that exist in current harassment prevention programs: lack of understanding and empathy, and a lack of transparency. These two issues form the foundation of trust in employer efforts, and recent events have made clear that the foundation is shaky at best.
Creating Cultures of Understanding
Cultures of understanding ensure that responses to sexual harassment are appropriate and rehabilitating, not exacerbating. Unfortunately, we are currently getting a glimpse at the latter.
Over the past year, one thing has become very clear. Victims don’t forget. And for some, the pain they suffered remains raw despite the passage of time. Instead of a response of empathy for the victims, we are seeing discussions around whether their allegations are to be believed. These discussions often ignite heated and unproductive debates that demonstrate ignorance about the experience of being a victim.
This practice of isolating women and cutting off their access to social and career growth opportunities is likely damaging your organization now.
Along with a lack of empathy, we are seeing counter-productive responses. Men have reported changing their behavior (but not in the way you would hope). Some men (all ages, professions and backgrounds) are simply choosing to avoid women. To “protect” themselves, they have rules about not eating with women, or meeting with them alone in a conference room, or mentoring them. This practice of isolating women and cutting off their access to social and career growth opportunities is likely damaging your organization now. These reactions indicate that employees don’t understand harassment, and don’t trust that their employer does either.
What lessons should we learn from the reactions of our employees? Our workplace cultures need more care and attention. Fear (of retribution, retaliation, damage to career, etc.) still drive behavior and silence victims. Employers need to build emotional and interpersonal human intelligence, and find ways to cultivate empathy to combat these fears. Absent action in 2019, fear will continue to fuel culture damaging behaviors.
Transparency Is Necessary to Restore Trust in a Broken System
In 2018, employees sent their employers a clear message – that trust is broken. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in business to do the right thing took a major hit. Recent events have demonstrated to us that employees don’t believe that their employers will respond properly if they bring a complaint, or that they will be treated fairly if there is a complaint made against them. This is likely the sentiment even if your organization is doing everything right because your process has, until now, been shrouded in secrecy.
Compliant handling and remedial measures are under increased scrutiny. It used to be that an internal investigation was generally just that – an isolated investigation of a report that involved a small handful of people, and a victim who had no idea what other employees had complained about or experienced. There was very little transparency or even expectation of transparency – victims were expected to trust their employer to do what is right. NDAs previously ensured that victims did not speak about their experiences.
Recent events have surfaced a general public conclusion that more harm than benefit has been done by the current, trust-based system. Employers have abused employee trust by not holding powerful perpetrators accountable for their actions and distrusting those who spoke up. Employers (who collectively did not respond adequately to the need for a change in approach) now find themselves facing new legislation prohibiting the use of NDAs at the state level and a constant stream of very public scrutiny and coverage of their process for addressing harassment allegations.
The Edelman Trust Barometer also indicates that employees are looking to their own organizations, and in particular their CEOs, to rebuild trust. And greater transparency will be critical. In 2019, it will be important to find the right balance between total confidentiality (often a legal recommendation) and the need for transparency to build trust in your organization, your leaders, and your internal processes.
With social media, digital technology, and empowered citizen reporting, transparency is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity when managing a corporate culture. Today’s employers have two options in a social media savvy world: Be part of the solution, or be part of the story. When companies choose not to take the lead, the public is now equipped to compel transparency.
Key Steps for Organizations to Take
Be Prepared to Act, but not Over-React
Don’t let the demand for action result in knee-jerk reactions. Organizations must be prepared to react, investigate, and respond properly, in ways that are fair and just. Firing someone is not always the right answer, and when it is, it should be after a conclusive investigation. Don’t create a situation where you need to backtrack because you made a hasty or unfair decision. Show those who complain and those who are accused that the process is fair and trustworthy.
Check Your Bias at the Door
Ensure that your process for vetting complaints is fair and thorough and treats victims and those accused with respect and dignity. Ask yourself if you or your investigators have a bias against victims or perpetrators that influences how you investigate claims. Train your investigators and managers to recognize any conscious and unconscious biases they may have, and how to ensure these biases do not influence the incident management process.
Reinforce Your Culture Even if it Requires Tough Decisions
“Respect” as a value alone does not mean anything, unless employees at all levels are held to a high standard of behavior. This can require very tough decisions about good employees who are nonetheless disrespectful to others. It may even require terminating employees who do great things for your business, but just don’t understand how to treat others with respect. Standing behind your words is what helps build a culture of respect.
Embed the Sentiment of Your Policies Through Effective Training
Updating policies and procedures with language that accurately and appropriately elevates expectations for employees in regard to sexual harassment is key. But to truly embed these values into the organization, employees, managers and leadership all need to be properly trained. This requires anti-sexual harassment training that resonates with employees, and clearly identifies right, wrong and the gray areas in between.
Be More Transparent
Consider ways that your organization can share information about your process, your efforts, and the actions you have taken to address harassment. The information you share may be a quarterly summary and an annual report – but at a minimum what you decide to share must communicate to your employees that you are actually taking action, and that you stand behind your commitment. Find that balance between too much detail and enough to help rebuild trust in your values and leaders.