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What HR Execs Must Know about Fighting Harassment and Promoting Inclusion

The United States is currently in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which has brought about awareness of harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. This movement is not the first step toward progress, and it cannot be the last.

To recap key milestones on the path to eventually ending harassment, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 to outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In 1986, the Supreme Court held that harassment based on sex is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1991, Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The hearings that followed sparked awareness of a hidden epidemic, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges of sexual harassment doubled over the five years that followed. Fast forward to the #MeToo movement — scandals involving the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer have brought even more sorely needed attention to the issue.

The issue of harassment is well-traveled, from Washington to Hollywood, but the epicenter of the movement is now in human resources, where it belongs.

Consider the Statistics

According to a 2018 Edison Research Survey, 21 percent of Americans indicated they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace: 27 percent of women and 14 percent of men say they have been victimized at work. Among victims, 50 percent of women and 64 percent of men say that the harassment damaged their careers, and 52 percent made a job change because of harassment. Yet just 25 percent of women and 41 percent of men who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace strongly agreed they could report an incident without fear.

A 2017 ABC News Survey revealed that among women who faced unwanted advances in the workplace, eight in 10 said the episode met the criteria for sexual harassment, and a third said it went even further, to sexual abuse. According to ABC News, "This translates to about 33 million U.S. women being sexually harassed, and 14 million sexually abused in work-related incidents."

Effects of Harassment

HR executives from the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) on down all have a vested interest in ridding the workplace of harassment — not only on account of moral obligation, but for business objectives as well. An employee culture that enables offenders ultimately results in reduced morale, engagement and productivity. These affect the bottom line on a daily basis and have accumulating effects for businesses arising from greater employee attrition. Left unchecked, a persistent record of protecting offenders can lead to the demise of an organization.

For individuals, the effects of harassment are just as devastating. Victims can lose self-confidence, self-worth, career opportunities and even the belief in the American dream. Every institution depends on the sanctity and the confidence of the individuals who comprise it.

Examples of Harassment

Though #MeToo is a trending subject, other forms of harassment are as diverse as their victims and have been occurring since American workplaces came into being. Employees may be harassed for an infinite number of reasons, from personal dislike to behaviors associated with prejudice and discrimination. Here are just a few examples:

  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Bigoted remarks in a one-on-one or group setting
  • Preference shown to members of one group over others
  • Opportunities made less available to members of an affinity group
  • Ridicule or criticism on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation or other affinity

Methods of Harassment Prevention and Deterrence

When employees believe there are obstacles to success that have nothing to do with their own talents and work ethic, the prognosis for their employers' businesses are just as grim. The effects of harassment have been made clear to employers, the types of harassment are known by employees, and there is no longer a fertile environment for this behavior to persist. Yet, harassment will continue in any given workplace unless the following preventive methods are implemented and deterrents put in place:

Legal Expertise: The first step for any HR department serious about preventing harassment is to consult a legal team for a thorough understanding of federal and state laws and how they apply to the particular workplace.

Reflection: Employers must review their own histories of harassment claims and understand the previous structures and policies that enabled abusers and disempowered victims.

Education and Training: Current employees must be taught what constitutes harassment and how it affects individuals, morale, employee retention, business objectives and the bottom line.

Open, Transparent Policies: Employers must establish a clear intent to rid the workplace of harassment with a policy that defines the scope of the term, delineates parameters, describes punishable offenses and defines consequences. Most importantly, the policy must establish clear procedures for reporting offenses and a process for bringing offenders to justice.

Inclusion: The most fundamental change that must take place within an organization involves becoming more inclusive and more diverse. Job candidates representing all races, gender identities, physical abilities, mental abilities, sexual orientations, religions and socioeconomic status levels must be welcome to apply, and must feel equal to all other employees once hired. In the post-#MeToo age, employees who do not feel included will not want to stay with their employers.

However, ensuring inclusion is easier said than done.

Without thoughtful and deliberate discussion and action, all of the resources invested in recruiting a diverse workforce are squandered. Without inclusion policies, retention of a diverse workforce is impossible, and many new workers will likely leave within months.

A transition to inclusion requires a corresponding culture shift to allow a diverse workforce to flourish. HR must work to discover, fulfill and include each affinity group's unique needs. Groups of all sizes merit the active efforts of inclusion, and all HR has to do to begin serious efforts is talk to employees. Ask about accommodations that may be necessary for certain groups, such as prayer rooms, nursing rooms and gender-friendly bathrooms. Ask about difficulties that some groups may have in assimilating into a diverse group — differences in communication styles and language, for example. There is no need to wait until someone feels excluded for HR to research, plan and make changes.

The series of tasks involved is nuanced to be sure. Just ponder the logistical difficulties of accommodating each group's unique needs, and each individual's unique needs, but not giving preference to one group or individual over another! Yet the benefit of arriving at an inclusive, harassment-free workplace is an endeavor worth pursuing, no matter the level of difficulty.

Learn more about the University of Northern Colorado's online MBA with an emphasis in Human Resource Management.


Sources:

Forbes: What Should Inclusion Really Look Like in the Workplace?

HR Dive: 10 trends That Will Shape HR in 2018

SHRM: One Year After #MeToo and 'Weinstein Effect': What's Changed?

Workforce: Addressing #MeToo in the Workplace and HR's Response

Edison Research: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

ABC News: Unwanted Sexual Advances Not Just at Hollywood, Weinstein Story, Poll Finds

Glassdoor: What Companies Must Learn from #MeToo

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