Sexual Harassment - HR as a Safe Place

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When it comes to sexual harassment or any related issue, HR should be seen as fair and just.  That, after all, is the cornerstone of making HR a safe place for employees.

Chai Feldblum is the commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Feldblum told CNN, “A good HR office is the linchpin for an employer’s effective system for learning about harassment and then responding quickly and effectively.”

But Feldblum said the system breaks down when executives fail to enforce harassment policies or do not punish employees.

Sexual Harassment


Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.  One of the best ways to address that is training.  Training can and should be the first line of defense.

HR, with the help of legal counsel, should develop and present a sexual harassment workshop that can be given to management personnel in all parts of the company. The subject matter should cover the various offensive behaviors based on legal precedent while utilizing discreet demonstrations, if needed, to clearly illustrate any major point. Conclude the workshop with a Q & A session, followed by short presentation by the Chief Legal Counsel and/or CHRO to clearly convey the importance of the policy.

RELATED:  Defining Sexual Harassment

This formal anti-harassment education should be provided at least once a year for existing employees and during on-boarding for all new hires. 

In addition, companies should reinforce their commitment to preventing and ending sexual harassment.  HR should issue reminders to all employees that the behavior is strictly prohibited, and remind them of internal complaint procedures and encourage anyone who feels harassed to come forward without fear.

The #MeToo Movement and Beyond

In October of 2017, the sex-related behavior of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein became public.  The news sparked the flame that became the #MeToo Movement.  With a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano, the hashtag #MeToo spread like wildfire online with more than 500,000 mentions on Twitter and 12 million on Facebook in the first 24 hours alone.  It became a rallying cry for women and men who say they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.

Nearly two years later, data from the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, shows one-third of executives have changed the way they operate where sexual harassment is concerned.  There have been other impacts as a result.  The SHRM report says those same executives report seeing:

  • Decreased morale
  • Decreased engagement
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased hostile work environments
  • Increased turnover

More work to be done

72% of employees feel “satisfied with their company’s efforts to stop sexual harassment in the workplace.

More than 1/3 still believe their workplace fosters sexual harassment

The numbers above reinforce the fact that more work is needed toward preventing and/or ending sexual harassment.  That, however, is not meant to diminish the changes that have already occurred. 

New laws have been created that impact the workplace.

New and current company rules have been or are being enforced.

Communication between employees and HR professionals has become more direct and open.

And while there’s been quite a bit of change made with respect to workplace dynamics, not all of the changes have been good.

For instance, some executives have stopped inviting female colleagues on trips or networking events out of fear the situation could be inadvertently misconstrued.  That equals a decrease in the number of opportunities women have to network or connect with other people in their chosen fields.

HR’s Role

Whenever an event occurs within the company, especially one related to a sexual harassment case, HR must be present to help pick up the pieces. Sana’ Rasul, the Chief Girlfriend for HR Girlfriends LLC and a HR Exchange Network advisory board member, says it starts with the necessity of being transparent, honest, and authentic.

“I think it's important that people understand what HR’s role is. I think there's a misconception about what HR does, what our reign of power is, and our capabilities, and, actually, our boundaries,” Rasul said. Furthermore, she said more people need to understand HR's role as a consultant, an advisor, a policy enforcer, a policy developer.

RELATED:  Sexual Harassment – Addressing Policy and Complaints

That said, however, SHRM says executives want that to change.  They want HR to be empowered to “influence workplace culture to stop sexual harassment and foster a safe environment”.  Ways to do that include:

  • Enhancing HR’s ability to investigative allegations without retaliation
  • Conducting independent reviews of all workplace misconduct investigations
  • Increasing diversity in leadership roles

The Next Chapter

Preventing and eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace is not going to happen overnight.  It requires real commitment from company and organization leaders along with leaders in human resources.  It is also going to take a commitment to change the culture around work and support from employees to make it happen and, once it does, to make the change permanent.

To learn more about how to deal with sexual harassment from an HR prospective, download our resource:  A Guide for HR and Sexual Harassment here.


Image courtesy:  Pexels