How to Prevent Sexual Harassment in the #metooera

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Harvey Weinstein.  Charlie Rose. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mark Halperin. Some of the most powerful men in the United States have been confronted with a reality that we live in a new era for sexual harassment in the workplace. Behavior that was ignored or acceptable in the past is now grounds for termination or investigation. This awaking has led to discussions within many companies about sexual harassment and how to protect organizations from potential lawsuits.

The current landscape provides human resource professionals with an exciting opportunity. Workplace sexual harassment training is often outdated and often geared more toward eliminating discrimination during the hiring process. The current era gives human resource professionals the leverage to implement systems and trainings that seek to reduce the potential for workplace sexual harassment claims.

This is particularly true in California. In 2018, the California legislature updated requirements for sexual harassment training in the workplace. By the end of 2019, all companies with five or more employees are required to conduct workplace sexual harassment training. Previously, only companies with 50 or more employees were required to conduct sexual harassment training. The training must be at least two hours long for members of management and one-hour for non-supervisory positions. It must occur within six months after an employee joins a company and must reoccur every two years.

Types of sexual harassment
In general, there are two types of sexual harassment in the workplace — quid pro quo and a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is when someone seeks sexual favors in exchange for something, such as a promotion or a raise. A hostile work environment can be anything from inappropriate jokes, unwanted touching or solicitation for sex. Harassment can be outwardly aggressive or discreet and subtle. It is any activity that makes the person feel uncomfortable or threatened. Both types of harassment are something any company should take seriously.

Tone starts at the top
The culture and environment within any company starts at the top. That goes for sexual harassment. Leadership must set an example and demonstrate that employees need to be treated with respect and sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.  Management must demonstrate that it takes training and discussing issues around sexual harassment seriously. Leadership must seek the input of human resource professionals and ask for periodic updates on sexual harassment complaints and investigations within the company.

Have the right policies in place
Addressing workplace sexual harassment starts with company policies. Human resources professional, management and the company’s legal staff must work together to craft policies that define sexual harassment and establish acceptable behavior within the workplace. A code of conduct must be established and every new and current employee must be provided with the material. The policy must clearly define the process of how a complaint is filed and investigated.

Hire the right people 
People spend a lot of time together in the workplace and hiring the right people who will act appropriately goes a long way toward preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Companies are encouraged to do proper background checks on new employees and hire people who have a track record of working for reputable companies. Look at a potential employee’s social media post. If the person acts inappropriately on social media, that is a red flag. As well, a company should not promote someone who has a history of complaints against them. The people establish culture, and hiring and promoting the right people is the way to grow a healthy and positive workplace culture.

Make reporting easy 
Reporting sexual harassment is often difficult for employees. They face the potential for retaliation, especially when supervisors are involved, and worry about losing their jobs. Companies should create a safe environment for reporting allegations of workplace sexual harassment. Human resources professionals should have an open-door policy, and employees must understand that confidentiality is a primary concern when issues of sexual harassment are being discussed. The problem will only become bigger and greater if it not addressed in a responsible way. Uber is the perfect example. The problem was never confronted and had to become a national headline before it was finally addressed.

Be consistent
Consistency is the paramount when it comes to handling sexual harassment complaints. A company needs a process that is consistent every time a complaint is filed. A company does not want employees to think that certain people are being protected, and that every complaint is not handle in a serious manner. A company does not want to create a “boys club” culture when harassment is laughed off as “boys being boys.” A company must have a zero-tolerance policy and must establish a system that ensures everyone is treated fairly and in the same manner.