With every day bringing new allegations and rumours about workplace sexual harassment, HR professionals are inevitably left wondering ‘are we next?’
Rather than dusting off the old Equalities Policy and crossing your fingers, here are the three questions that smart HR Directors are asking right now:
What do I (sort of) know already?
It’s a truism that most whistleblowers are victimised for drawing attention to facts that are already known. It makes sense that this is all the more likely to be true when exposing a predatory sexual harasser who may well have a string of different victims.
Look at the evidence now emerging about Harvey Weinstein and, on an even more disturbing note, that which emerged in the aftermath of Jimmy Saville’s death.
In relation to the Westminster scandal, Baroness Jenkin spoke recently in the House of Lords about ‘the usual suspects’ – probably not intended as a Kevin Spacey reference, but effectively highlighting the sense of open secrecy which often characterises these situations.
With hindsight, the picture may be damning, but at the time it might have seemed fragmentary and ‘too difficult’. When the evidence is not clear-cut, and the complaint is against someone powerful in the organisation, it is often easier to go into defensive mode and view complainants as the problem.
A better approach takes bravery and may be more difficult in the short term. The starting point has to be a willingness to hear and take on board unpleasant truths.
Key practical steps to improving your organisation’s position on this include robust leavers’ interviews (including follow up where issues are raised) and the promotion of initiatives that give employees chance to build relationships with senior figures outside their own ‘chain of command’.
This might include mentoring schemes and matrix/hybrid management structures. Good HR information management should also ensure that where there are a number of lower-level allegations against one individual over time, this can be recorded and retained (without becoming fuel for the gossip mill).
While taking that long, hard look at the organisation, it’s also worth giving consideration to any blurred boundaries between work and the private/social lives of employees.
Employees staying in hotels, entertaining clients in the evening, drinking alcohol or working in close physical contact may all be necessary in different industries and may all be conducted in a professional and appropriate way. But they also represent more risk than a 9 – 5 open plan office environment.
Now is the time to find out what really goes on and, if the business is not comfortable about it, strategise for change.
Do we have people who consider themselves irreplaceable?
These days, the majority of employees would probably assume that groping a junior colleague is the sort of behaviour that quickly leads to a cardboard box and a P45. So often, although not always, the offenders will be those who consider themselves immune from sanction. That might be because of their unique talent or personal brand – see badly-behaving footballers, TV presenters, politicians, etc.
Other categories of ‘irreplaceable’ employees include business founders, high sales/income producers or long-serving employees who hold key information or relationships to themselves.
If you have people in this category, a possible sexual harassment risk is just one reason amongst many to try to reduce their ‘irreplaceability’ and to pay particular attention to their behaviour.
What era are we living in?
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect just how quickly social attitudes have changed in the last few decades.
One of the reasons that sexual harassment claims have not felt as much of a threat to employers as, say, pregnancy discrimination claims is because women have to a large degree just accepted it as an inevitable part of life. We are now seeing a change in that attitude.
High profile cases will account for only a tiny fraction of actual incidences of harassment, but they can be immensely powerful catalysts for action. Linking in with the previous point, an important factor in making harassers thinks they can get away with it is a culture which has excused, or even condoned, that behaviour on previous occasions.
So, now is the time to think about whether your organisation’s culture has moved with the times. If not, start planning your catch-up strategy.
Appropriate equalities training can not only, hopefully, stop the problem in the first place, but it can protect the business from vicarious liability in relation to the acts of rogue employees.
We can help your business or organisation deal appropriately with sexual harassment concerns and provide training to minimise your risk. We also act for individuals and employees in selected cases.