Many leaders try to deal with harassment via policy and protocols
This is why they get caught out. They are stuck at compliance when they should be looking at cultural change.
Many organisations have anti sexual-harassment policies in place, and in most developed economies it is also unlawful. So why is it still an ongoing issue? The fact remains that harassment is both a common workplace occurrence, and in our wider cultures. Harassment takes place because it can and because it represent an imbalance of power, whether gender, racial or another type of dominance. It is also facilitated by a culture of collusion where bystanders and organisational representatives (frequently HR) don’t intervene.
Preventative action or intervention takes place usually when there is a threat of a legal process, or as research suggests after the perpetrator has gone too far. According to Annabel Kaye of Irenicon U.K. employment law specialists, it that can take as many as 6 complaints. Organisations which don’t deal with toxic cultures risk damage to their employer brand, which impacts all elements of the talent pipeline.
To deal with sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind, requires a clearly defined programme and leadership commitment to drive cultural change. It has to be more than a compliance exercise where senior management announce a zero tolerance policy and take action only when a lawyer’s letter arrives in their inbox. It’s about holding people accountable and being seen to take the appropriate steps to eradicate it. But primarily it’s also about effecting a profound cultural change where everyone finds the behaviour unacceptable and responds correspondingly.
Re-engineering a cultural change to eliminate harassment should be like any other change management initiative. It requires leadership commitment, systemic adjustments and demands changes to individual behaviour. It should be a business decision not just an HR challenge.
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5 Steps to initiate cultural change
1. Anti-harassment should be a contractual obligation
Make your anti-harassment policy public and clear on the company website. Plus include it in your hiring process, with acceptance of that policy being part of the conditions of employment requiring a signature. Existing employees should also be obliged to sign the same commitment.
2. Training for new hires
Make sure all new hires follow anti-harassment training. Be clear that they know how to intervene as managers and bystanders, as well as how to self-advocate if targeted personally. This should be via live training rather than online or machine learning. It’s easy to skip bits with remote learning and a trainer can also learn a lot by observing the non-verbal communication of participants.
Make any reporting processes familiar to all, clearly outlined and easily accessible.
3. Training for leaders
It’s important that all leaders receive unconscious bias training. This allows them to become conscious of micro-aggressions, the lower level types of harassment that over time becomes toxic. These are deeply embedded into workplace cultures and over time become corrosive. It should also touch on cross-cultural training, because certain behaviours which are acceptable in one culture may not be in another.
Any training should cover the handling of hard conversations with key personnel and top performers so that they have a clear understanding of their boundaries. They need to be fully aware of personal and organisational expectations. The CEO should also be present at any initial training to confirm commitment to the policy and active involvement.
4. Leadership engagement
It is evident that leaders very often have no idea what is going on in the ranks, especially how young and junior women are treated. It’s important to close that leadership gap with town halls or focus groups, or another way of staying in touch with the grassroots of the organisation. The secret is to talk openly about these issues before they escalate. If employees feel safe and secure they will share their experiences candidly. Just because no one is complaining doesn’t mean to say that nothing is going on.
Very often these habits are so part of our every day lives, that perpetrators claim that they had no idea they were being offensive. These individuals need to become culturally aware and develop empathy. They may need additional people skills training. How behaviour is received is more important than the intention behind it.
5. Review and update policy regularly
Very often policies are not updated to factor in changes to the law and wider cultural shifts, particularly relating social media platforms. Sexually explicit images, texts and emails can also be forms of harassment and weren’t around 10 years ago. Change the people who are trusted confidantes in your reporting system from time to time to gain different perspectives and diversity of input. There are generational perceptions of what constitutes harassment. Allow individuals to choose who they can report their issue to, with both a male and female representative available. Although it is mainly women who report sexual harassment incidents, 20% of men also report issues and we are seeing an increase in these numbers too.
Organisations want to avoid paying lip service to a key employee policy, only to find out later that things are not what they seem when a complaint is finally filed.