HR Compliance

How to Build a Harassment-Free Workplace Culture

By

Matthew Paque

| Mar 20, 2018

Sexual harassment quickly can deteriorate – and even derail – any organization, making anti-harassment training vital. However, most companies address the issue with employees by pushing training that is routine, which is often ineffective on its own. Effective prevention of harassment in the workplace starts with creating a culture that identifies and rejects unacceptable behaviors.

Although an HR department’s role is primarily to protect the interests of the company, adopting policies and procedures for harassment and discrimination can help align the interest of both the organization and its employees. What steps can businesses take to balance both interests?

Join Matt Paque April 17, 1 p.m. CST, as he co-hosts the SHRM webinar, A Safer Workplace: Discussing Sexual Harassment, with HR Manager, Tiffany Gamblin.

Accountability from the top down

Workplace culture is the reflection of an organization’s values, behaviors and attitudes. A healthy culture is critical to attracting top talent, driving employee engagement and retention and improving performance.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s June 2016 report, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” leaders can take several steps to improve workplace culture surrounding harassment:

  1. Emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion. Harassment prevention based solely on a compliance mindset is unlikely to be successful.
  2. Conduct surveys to determine whether employees experience harassment in the workplace. The results should determine whether employees feel harassment – if it exists – is tolerated.
  3. Implement effective policies and procedures, then conduct trainings on them.
  4. Support the policies, procedures and training with resources, whether time or money. There is no better way to convey to employees that efforts are authentic and credible than by dedicating sufficient company resources.
  5. Vest any department, team or task force charged with creating and maintaining a harassment-free workplace with the authority to make decisions.

 

Training that does not simply check a box

A healthy culture of equality starts with the tone from leadership. Organizational leadership must take an active role in defining acceptable workplace behavior, ensuring these behaviors are part of the company’s stated values, and investing in programs to promote a positive environment.

Although most people could identify blatant harassment such as “quid pro quo” – that is, offering to give an employee something in return for the employee’s satisfaction of a sexual demand – not all forms of harassment are universally recognized.

Anywhere from 25% to 85% of men and women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the EEOC. The wide divergence in the percentage is due, in part, to a knowledge gap of what actually constitutes sex-based harassment. When asked whether they have experienced unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion at work, the percentage of women claiming harassment was much lower. However, when explained that sex-based harassment includes “gender harassment,” which are hostile behaviors without sexual interest, the percentage increased dramatically. Gender harassment differs from unwanted sexual advances in that the behavior aims to insult and reject a person based on gender stereotypes.

To create an environment free of harassment, employees throughout the organization must understand clearly conduct that is acceptable and that is not. Implementing interactive training on reporting procedures, unacceptable conduct and, more importantly, applying policies consistently – regardless of position within the organization – can dramatically improve culture.

A compelling business case

Put simply, employers should invest in preventing harassment not only because it is wrong, but because they have a legal obligation to do so. However, a deeper dive reveals organizations have an incentive beyond moral and legal to mitigate harassment: a financial one.

The direct costs to an organization are staggering. According to the EEOC, since 2010, employers have paid $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through the agency’s administrative enforcement pre-litigation process. If a claim advances to litigation, the impact tends to grow even more substantial; for example, according to eBossWatch’s review of all harassment litigation in 2012, employers paid more than $356 million for workplace harassment complaints.

Although less measureable, the indirect costs can be considerable. Reports of pervasive sexual misconduct within high-profile organizations have dominated the headlines for months. Allowing – or in some cases, encouraging – a culture of harassment and discrimination has caused substantial reputational damage to those organizations.

More importantly, the human toll is significant. Employees subject to a hostile work environment can experience mental and physical harm. Depression, anxiety, chronic headaches and sleep, respiratory and cardiovascular problems have been linked to those experiencing harassment. When employees experience these conditions, companies suffer from decreased productivity and increased turnover.

When organizational leadership prioritizes creating a harassment-free workplace culture by emphasizing values of diversity and inclusion, implementing effective training, allocating sufficient resources and applying policies and procedures consistently, the interests of the company begin to align with those of its employees.

Disclaimer: This blog includes general information about legal issues and developments in the law. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal problems.

About the Author

Matthew Paque

Matthew A. Paque is Paycom’s Executive Vice President of Legal and Compliance. In this role, he is responsible for Paycom’s legal affairs including compliance and risk management. He has served in a variety of leadership and legal positions in both the private sector and in government. Before joining Paycom, Paque was an attorney at the law firm of McAfee & Taft and previously was Assistant General Counsel at Tronox a global mining and chemical company. He holds a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. from Oklahoma City University. Paque is also an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business.

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