From a Whisper to a ROAR: Handling Workplace Sexual Harassment in 2018

Note: This article was a brilliant collaboration with my favorite "sisterpreneur", Cindy Joyce, CEO of Pillar Search & HR Consulting and was recently published in the Northeast Human Resources Association publication "Insights".

From a Whisper to a Roar

Handling Workplace Sexual Harassment in 2018

It is an understatement that 2017 has been a year of radical change in the United States. For Human Resources practitioners, perhaps the most impactful and talked about was the “Weinstein effect”. When media outlets reported on numerous sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, it was described as a "tipping point", and precipitated a "national reckoning" against sexual harassment.

It was a shocking transition from what had become the norm - victims feeling worse for having reported incidents due to how they were handled, overt and subtle retaliation, or simply because the victim did not see a clear path to address the behavior, and was left feeling exposed and vulnerable. That being said, even prior to Weinstein’s “outing” and the #metoo movement, sexual harassment was evolving right in front of us.

For example, it became more than a two-gender problem. Today, there are a whole host of genders in the mix, including but not limited to woman, man, trans-woman, trans-man, gender-fluid, questioning, and unsure. Any and all of these genders can harass or be harassed. Historically, it was men who were viewed as the more likely perpetrators of harassment and as having less of a stake in helping to solve the problem. However, with the recent explosion of high-profile cases, more and more men are asking questions, expressing genuine concern, and inquiring about how they can play a role in eradicating this behavior in the workplace. We are witnessing a seismic shift in how sexual harassment is being discussed. Inclusion, equality, and diversity have started to mean something different, and the words have become more prevailing than ever.

So, what does this mean for HR practitioners in 2018? Simply said, we have an opportunity to change the narrative and elevate the way it’s being addressed. Discussing sexual harassment is no longer an obligatory training, it is an imperative discussion. HR has been presented with an opportunity to demonstrate strategic leadership, to partner and have meaningful dialogue with colleagues, and together, truly affect the change needed to ensure every employee is supported and treated with respect.

We’d like to offer that it’s time to be innovative and engaging about how we address this issue, and get downright strategic about how we prevent it. It’s time to toss out the standard annual sexual harassment PowerPoint presentation and/or email reminder of what not to do. After all, how much personal understanding and commitment is someone demonstrating by clicking a box to indicate they have read and agreed?

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigate this new landscape, perhaps the resources have been right in front of us all along. Maybe it’s time to actively engage employees in becoming part of the solution. What we’ve found is that when employees have a safe forum to share their thoughts and learn from each other, it becomes a powerful and educational conversation. Furthermore, when you engage someone not associated with your organization to facilitate, the dialogue becomes much more fluid and enlightening. As a result, you receive an honest assessment of what your employees are dealing with, which can be invaluable and inform how you can better address the issue going forward.

It is also time to galvanize your employee resource groups and supercharge your efforts around making them impactful. Typically, employees with passion for (or at least a strong interest in) equality and inclusion self-select to join an ERG. If you have ERG’s that are established, there is likely already trust and open communication. Talk to them. Learn more about their personal perspective, pilot your new and improved anti-harassment education approach with them first to get their feedback, and remind the entire population that these ERG’s exist, and why. You may find that you have an uptick in new members given all that is going on. On the other hand, if you do not currently have employee resource groups, the timing may be right to create them.

No matter what approach you choose, getting a realistic understanding of what your employees concerns are and what may be impacting their performance and engagement can be crucial in creating an inclusive environment. It’s high time that we let the whispers to turn into a roar, and to let that roar inspire positive actions that result in actively preventing sexual harassment in the workplace instead of merely addressing it.

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