by Michele Harmon
As I start my second article, I wanted to remind you that my goal is to inform, to make you stop and think before reacting, and to help you know where to find the right answers to keep you out of hot water with regards to Human Resources (HR) issues. I hope you bookmarked the Texas Workforce Commission A-Z Personnel Policies and sent your HR representative to the local Permian Basin Society for Human Resources Management (PBSHRM) meeting. If you didn’t then maybe you will this month.
That being said, as promised, let’s talk about sexual harassment. Oh no, I bet you think I am going to get on the #ME TOO movement. So not! However, I will say that the world is changing and we need to change with it. We do not need to make a 100 percent transformation of ourselves, but we do need to start thinking differently about how we approach problematic issues, especially at work.
Here is my best recommendation to you for your own behavior and what you should expect of your employees. If you do not want it said or done to your own child, then it is unacceptable behavior. If you keep that one thing in mind, you should be able to prevent most complaints of sexual harassment.
You can tell your employees not to sexually harass others, you can send them to training, and you can show them videos, and they may still do something just plain stupid. That being said, we have all done something stupid in our life or we would not be human. So, what is the magic formula for preventing problems at work?
I suggest you train your employees and yourself in small groups and give them an opportunity to participate and ask questions in a “safe” environment. My favorite and sometimes very informative activity to include in training is to have the participants come up with five things you should not say and/or do at work that might be considered sexual harassment. OMG what I have learned doing that short exercise.
Those who sexually harass employees come in all shapes, sizes, ages, etc. My training is mostly delivered to Millennials these days and I can assure you: they have some maturing to do. However, before picking on any generation, you need to ask yourself, when did I make the most mistakes? I know when I did and I am still learning and growing. Not too long ago I said to a dear, intelligent, sensitive person, “you are worth your weight in gold.” I am still kicking myself because they are not 120 lbs. like me if you get my drift.
Next, how do you make people change behavior? Simon Sinek says, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” I’d suggest that the boss be a great role model for his/her employees. I used to teach substituting positive behaviors for negative ones in a past life to Middle School students. I’m not going to go into a long discussion of psychology but leave it to say, I have never stopped using the word “fudgesicle” as a substitute for a 4-letter word. Can you guess what it was? More recently, I give bad drivers a thumbs up versus what most of us would like to do. That takes effort these days and they look at me like I am a crazy lady.
So, here is the nitty gritty of what you must have in place at work. Have a policy that follows the laws about fair and equitable treatment. Do more than Joe Biden said recently about “being more mindful” of his behavior. Remember that people in power, and those who are not, can behave badly and they are both men and women. Sexual harassment is not just a male harassing a female. Demi Moore and Michael Douglas acted in Disclosure in the early 1990s well before the blue dress.
Remember, it only takes an accusation to start a landslide and ruin careers. However, where there is smoke there is often times a fire. What you must do as an employer or employee is to not turn a blind eye to what is wrong. That means you do not hire someone without a complete background check. More on this topic later, but leave it to say, it is embarrassing for your organization when even the accusation of inappropriate behavior by one of your employees or coworkers is on the front page of the newspaper and social media. There will be more to come about social media later.
The first law against sexual harassment dates back to the 1960s and there have been many additional laws since then and we do not pay attention. It is against the law to harass another person, request sexual favors, make unwanted sexual advances, or make offensive remarks or comments. Sometimes we use a standard of how frequent and how severe the harassment is but these days, just DO NOT DO IT. Are you willing to put yourself in jeopardy? Sensitivity to harassment is heightened at the very least and there is no reason to tell that bad joke. I strongly suggest that you do not date someone at work and I do not care what statistics say about the percentage of people that meet and marry their coworkers. What happens when you two break up and, all of a sudden, it becomes an unwanted sexual advance? In what universe were you thinking, now?
Some of my professional friends would tell you that the offended party is supposed to tell the possible offender not to do the specific behavior again and if it stops, then that is enough. I would say, that standard is sometimes impractical. If an employee harasses another employee at work—with the harasser being someone who could potentially exert influence over the other employee’s career and advancement—then it is highly unlikely that the harassed employee is going to say anything without the proper policies, etc., in place.
Give your employees a safe haven to report what they think is harassment so you can nip it in the bud if it exists and prevent a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). That will cost you time and money and money and money. Do not let the person(s) that reported the harassment be retaliated against in any way. That is tricky and that is why you need a well trained and experienced HR leader. Martin Luther King said, “That old law about an ‘eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.”
What is old is not necessarily new again. Just because it was okay 10, 20, or 30 years ago, does not make it okay today. In the movie 9 to 5, Dabney Coleman’s character will probably be treated even more harshly in the new version of the movie than he was treated by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lilly Tomlin in 1980. Do you remember the original Captain Kirk’s behavior with the ladies on Star Trek or Denny Crane’s behavior on Boston Legal? If you do, great, if you do not, stream them. Just 10 years ago we laughed at Denny Crane’s horrendously bad sexual harassment of women on Boston Legal and so did his co-star Candice Bergen. I doubt Candice would be laughing now.
Therefore, take reasonable care to prevent harassment by having a policy against it, developing a complaint procedure, training your employees on how to recognize and report inappropriate behavior, investigating complaints asap, and taking immediate corrective action.
My tip for you is to treat others as you would want to be treated. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a duck. Make sure you have a well-trained HR member on your staff.
“Your employees are the heart of your organization.” Dr. Michele Harmon is a Human Resource professional, supporting clients in Texas and New Mexico that range in size from five to more than 3,000 employees. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org