Employers must cultivate a “speak-up culture” to solve the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to employment attorney and diversity consultant Cindy-Ann Thomas.
To do this, they must create a culture where employees are confident their voice will be heard because “people go to who they trust” when it comes to reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, said Thomas in a session entitled, “The #MeToo and #TimesUp Cultural Shift: How to Reduce Disparities in the Workplace.”
The session was part of the 2018 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition, held Oct. 22-24 in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas is a principal at Littler Charlotte law firm in North Carolina and co-chair of its Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity Practice Group.
Thomas noted that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 2016 task force found that fewer than 15 percent of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint.
“How is the company, or its employees, to know something is going on if people don’t feel comfortable speaking up?” she said. “Make it mandatory to speak up, but provide multiple access points.”
Reset company culture
A culture where employees are comfortable reporting harassment through the proper channels at work is preferable to having complaints by employees who feel they have nowhere to turn going viral on the internet. “It allows you to protect the brand,” Thomas said.
Employees should be able to report harassment to their manager or anyone in a management role as well as to Human Resources (HR), she said.
She suggested supervisors receive special training to learn how to handle complaints in a professional manner. That means taking the time to listen and ask questions, and never trivializing a complaint.
“It may feel personal,” Thomas said. “But keep it professional.”
In addition, she suggested having external avenues for reporting, such as a hotline or a third-party service.
Even anonymous reporting can help reset the company culture because it shows all harassment complaints are taken seriously.
Don’t shortchange anti-retaliation training
HR professionals can encourage reporting with an open-door policy, she noted. Thomas also suggested having a clear and strict policy forbidding retaliation by anyone in the workplace.
Retaliation means firing, demoting, or harassing someone who complains to their employer about discrimination on the job or files a discrimination charge.
According to the EEOC, the law forbids retaliation when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, and fringe benefits.
“Fear of retaliation is strong; give it the meaningful attention it deserves,” Thomas said. “Don’t just do ‘drive-by’ training on retaliation.”
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