Effectively Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace – Do the Blocking and Tackling

Since sexual harassment is currently such a big issue these days, I’m going to talk about the tools I’ve effectively developed and used over the years.  I’m writing this in November of 2017 and you can’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or read anything online without learning about some high profile politician, media personality, or famous celebrity being accused of some form of sexual harassment.

What frustrates me is how it has become such a “popular” thing to expose all of a sudden.  If we are being honest with ourselves, we all already knew this kind of behavior has been going on for years but nobody ever did anything about it.  At the highest level possible, we had a two term President in the 90’s who we all knew engaged in it.  And we now have a current President who was recorded bragging about it before winning the election. We also all knew about the infamous “casting couch” in Hollywood which has been around since the 1920s and probably even earlier. 

I’m frustrated that our society tolerated it for so long.

It’s about time that women are finally feeling comfortable about coming forward with their stories of harassment. There is no place for sexual harassment in our workplace and private lives. Never has been and never will be.

While all of the stories, so far, have been from women, and I fully recognize that most of the victims are going to be women,  I’m waiting to hear some men start coming forward telling their stories of how they were harassed – it happens to all genders, in every industry, in every socioeconomic status, etc.

In fact, two of my three biggest sexual harassment investigations were with women as the instigators.  So I know it’s only a matter of time before we hear about a woman politician, media personality, or celebrity harassing a subordinate. Let’s not forget how many female teachers, a female dominated profession, are being caught having sex with their male underage students. So it cuts both ways. Both men and women can be deviant creeps.

So how do we stop sexual harassment?  I’ve been reading a lot of articles about how the old traditional ways of dealing with it – an up-to-date policy, training, and investigate quickly and fairly to all complaints – no longer work.  That we must do something different to put an end to it, things like promoting more women and  implementing predictive analytics!

There is no easy solution and, sadly, no matter what we do, sexual harassment will never end.  It is, unfortunately, part of human nature.  Harassment, sexual and other types, have been around since the beginning of time and will be around until the end of time.

The only way to deal with it from an HR standpoint, in my opinion and experience, is to effectively and consistently do the basic blocking and tackling of having a strong and updated policy, conduct training annually and during onboarding, and conducting quick and fair investigations.  

I’ve had a lot of experience handling sexual harassment complaints and investigations.  And I can say that by effectively executing the basics I listed above is the best way of slowing it down and keeping it under control.  It creates a culture that clearly demonstrates that sexual harassment is not tolerated in the workplace and will be quickly addressed.

I have three steps of a Harassment Policy process that I find work best.

First, during onboarding,while reviewing the employee handbook, I stress that there is no tolerance of sexual or any other type of harassment  in our workplace.

When setting up the employee handbook, I make sure the policy is the first one listed so as to emphasize it’s importance. I also make sure I review it, along with our legal council and/or an employment lawyer, at least once every two years (I would do it right now regardless of when it was done earlier because of the current high profile cases in the media) to ensure it’s up to date. It’s also good to make sure the policy is written in plain english, not in legal handbookese that nobody understands.

Make sure each employee’s signee Acknowledgement of Receipt is in their file so there’s evidence that you reviewed the important policies with them.

Second, later in the onboarding schedule, I have a Harassment Training  session.  I will conduct either a live presentation or show them a video depending on the size of the onboarding class. I have two compliance trainings during onboarding, Harassment Prevention and Drug and Alcohol Prevention, and this again emphasizes the importance of our policy by putting such a primary focus on it during their onboarding. AION Recovery Rehab Center provides professional care in this respect.

I also have two mandatory annual all-hands Harassment Prevention training sessions, one for the general employee population and one for the supervisors and managers. I require managers and supervisors to attend the general employee population session so they are seen by all employees to be part of and fully supportive of the process. This also emphasizes to the managers the importance of the policy.

Each of these training sessions has a quiz that I require each employee to take and turn in after we review the answers. This gives you a document for their file that they’ve attended the training session and interacted by taking the quiz. Also make sure the employees sign an attendance sheet and file those sheets with your training materials.

Third and finally, when a complaint is received, I immediately jump into action and start an investigation. I once drove five hours from my office in Denver, CO to a remote location in central Wyoming the same day I received a complaint and immediately started the investigation. I stayed there for two days to interview people, have discussions with management, decide on proper corrective action, communicate our conclusion to affected employees, and conclude the investigation.

I then write up a final report documenting the process of my investigation, who I spoke to and what was said, my conversations with management, and the results of the final decision and corrective action taken.  This document goes into the accused’s file and I like to have a copy in a separate investigation file with other investigations I conducted.  

As you can see, I will always drop what I’m doing and immediately start an investigation when I get a harassment complaint because harassment is the most toxic workplace situation. It creates all sorts of serious legal, morale, productivity, ethical, safety, and many other similar problems. Problems that I can head off if I address the complaint immediately.

While it’s important to keep the investigation as confidential as possible while on site, we all know that the grapevine will communicate why you’re there and what you are doing.  Employees will see the corrective action and understand why.

This final step of a quick and fair investigation followed by the appropriate corrective action, if warranted, sends the strongest message possible to employees that harassment is not tolerated and will be dealt with swiftly. And it only really takes one or two instances to send a clear message and make a positive impact on the culture.

Now, remember, these steps will not completely eliminate harassment but they will go a long way in significantly reducing it to the point there will only be a few cases.  

But you have to do the day in and day out blocking and tackling consistently in order to minimize harassment and keep your company culture one that makes it clear it’s not tolerated.

Dealing with National Politics in the Workplace

You can’t get away from it these days. It’s all the media is talking about, it’s all over our social media feeds, it’s on all the award shows and entertainment programs we’re watching, it’s overheard in the stores and coffee shops we are visiting, and it’s in our workplace. Political discussions are everywhere and we are more politically polarized than I’ve ever seen in my life.

With today’s massive megaphone of social media and the 24 hour news cycle, many people have expressed their passion about the political issues and their candidates. And there’s something to offend just about anybody with the current hot-button issues such as race, class, gender, abortion, LGBT rights, immigration, terrorism, religion, etc.

I would venture to guess that we have all witnessed some very heated exchanges between family, friends, and coworkers regarding today’s political climate. I’ve seen people I respect and care about say or write some pretty horrible things about others based simply on their political beliefs.

People are more polarized in their positions like I’ve never seen before and those positions are making their way into the workplace and affecting morale and productivity.

In addition, many of today’s issues swerve into employment law. Political discussions about issues that affect working conditions such as minimum wage, equal pay, and paid leave might be protected by federal law.  While, on the other hand, political discussions about race, gender, and religion may lead to harassment or discrimination claims. And it only takes one person to pop off during a heated discussion and alienate another employee and/or cause a hostile work environment or a potential harassment claim.

I make it a practice not to discuss politics at work – especially these days. I hear enough of it on my Sirius radio when I commute to and from work and when I’m home trying to catch up on the news. Frankly, I’m exhausted of it all and don’t want to have to deal with it when I’m at work.

But, I’m HR, so I have to deal with it at work.

As such, I’ve come up with a couple of proven recommendations to help keep things under control.

First and foremost, HR must remain neutral. This is my number one recommendation. Whatever your beliefs, HR must be neutral and not take a side in a disputed conversation about politics. HR absolutely should not engage in a conversation with other employees expressing their political opinions and joining in with them bashing a side. I guarantee that you have employees on the other side who will hear or overhear what you said which will erode your credibility with them.

The purpose of your neutrality allows all of your employees to feel safe coming to you with their concerns about potentially uncomfortable or hostile political conversations they overheard or were part of. It’s HR’s job to make sure employees feel safe to surface any concerns they have from conversations they’ve had or overheard that make them feel uncomfortable or offended.

Second, Establish and communicate ground rules. Meet with your senior leaders to determine what political discussions your organization is willing to tolerate/accept at work. Will you ban it entirely or will you allow some as long as their respectful, appropriate, and inclusive of all beliefs?

Once you have that established,  conduct an all hands meeting and follow up with an email reminding your employees to be professional, respectful, and tolerant of other employee’s political beliefs. Remind them of the process for airing their complaints and how they will be dealt with and what the consequences will be for violating these ground rules. You must, as HR, clearly communicate to your employee population where you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. You can’t be ambiguous.

It’s also important to understand that you can’t ignore the issue at work. Ignoring it will only make the situation worse because these conversations may escalate into profanity and direct threats. Other employees who want to stay out of these discussions may also be unwillingly dragged in.

When you overhear a controversial political discussion happening at your workplace, and you’ve established the accepted ground rules, you simply remind the employees engaged in the conversation that they are not behaving in an acceptable manner (professional, respectful, or tolerant). If they continue after your reminder, you simply begin your organization’s disciplinary process.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you keep your workplace professional, respectful, civil and ultimately productive! Also, if situations arise where intervention of a third party is required to ward off office politics, expert help and counsel on several matters can always be available at Labor Law Compliance Center. Feel free to reach out to them.

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Workplace Harassment and Bullying at My Old High School

 

NCHS Staff meeting “Welcome Back” skit

You would think high school teachers and administrators, of all people, would know better!  You would also think a relatively large school district would do much better with the anti harassment and anti bullying training for their staff.

In my hometown of Casper, WY, at my high school alma mater, Natrona County High School,  there has been an ongoing controversy over a recent skit that was performed welcoming back school staff and introducing new staff at the beginning of the 2014 school year.

I have provided the recording of the skit here on this post and invite you to watch it.  I remind you, this was performed by high school administrators and teachers for other teachers, administrators, and staff on the school premises and during work hours.

What is so shocking to me about what I saw in the video is the sexual content and bullying.  They joke about masturbation, they “jokingly” called teachers serial killers and sexual offenders, suggested one was drunk, made fun of a new art teacher for being dumb,  mock another teacher’s poor teeth, offer a female teacher a set of testicles, do the “ugly” cheer for one teacher, and finally, physically grope a male administrator.

Publically humiliating new employees in front of their peers is not a good onboarding practice.

It’s shocking to me that these teachers/administrators thought it was OK to perform this skit.  It was something a bunch of high school kids would put together.  These are the ADULTS at the school.

They had obviously put a lot of time into writing and practicing the skit.  While they were writing and practicing, it didn’t occur to them that they were being grossly inappropriate?  What in the world made them think it was acceptable to behave the way they did in the workplace on school property?

It wasn’t a simple accidental comment or a momentary lapse in judgment – heck we’ve all been guilty of that.  Instead, it was a deliberately scripted and practiced performance.  It was deliberate and  mean and people shouldn’t have to put up with these behaviors , especially in the workplace.

These are people we entrust to educate and counsel our high school kids.  They are supposed to be role models.

The two “cheerleaders” in the skit are obviously leaders at the school.  With them being leaders, it shows that the culture in the school is one that is tolerant of bullying and harassment.  According to an earlier article this type of initiation has been going on for some time.  Regardless, it is unacceptable workplace behavior now and should have been in the past.

I commend the school district for immediately addressing the situation and bringing in an outside investigator.  The investigator concluded that “Natrona County High School administrators created an offensive educational environment and used language and actions that amounted to sexual harassment during a skit.”

The principle resigned shortly after the skit was made public.  Although he had nothing to do with the planning and wasn’t present during the skit, he accepted full responsibility.  I find it difficult to believe he didn’t know the content of these welcome back skits as they have been going on for years.  I think he did the right thing by resigning.  He knew he should have put a stop to it long ago. He is also responsible for the culture in the school which was clearly tolerant of coworker bullying and harassment.  No employees were fired over the skit but they were disciplined.

So bottom line, immediate action was taken and discipline was administered to the appropriate people.  Now the district leadership and HR department need to make sure they create a climate that no longer allows this type of behavior.  They also need to re-visit their anti-harassment and anti-bullying training to determine if it is adequate and make it so if it is not.

Their actions, so far, are a good start.

Another Bad Leadership Decision by the Miami Dolphins

pounceyAs you may or may not know, I am a long suffering Miami Dolphins fan.  I became a Dolphin fan as a youngster in the early 1970s when the team dominated the NFL and have been loyal to them ever since. 

Last year, the Dolphins suffered through a well publicized harassment scandal involving offensive linemen Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry, and Jonathan Martin.  I wrote about the scandal in several posts here at HHHR because it was a serious HR topic and it involved my favorite professional sports team – two of my worlds colliding! 

I was hoping that this year I wouldn’t need to write about the Dolphins or their harassment issues.

Unfortunately, I was wrong and here I am again. 

Coach Philbin prefers a “Leadership Council” instead of captains for his team.  Last year the team voted on who they wanted on the Leadership Council.  Turned out that two of the five members of the Council were prominently involved in  last year’s harassment scandal – Richie Incognito and Mike Pouncey.  Obviously, a huge mistake that had significant implications for the 2013 Dolphins organization. 

This year, coach Philbin continued the Leadership Council but had coaches select the members instead.  The Council now consists of one or two of the most senior members of each position group and numbers 15 players. 

Believe it or not, the coaches selected Mike Pouncey. 

When I heard this, I was floored.  What were they thinking?

Sure, I get that he is the most senior member of the OL and that he is one of the best centers in the NFL but his actions and his behavior last year (and this year) are toxic to the team.  He does not deserve to be on the Leadership Council.

Let’s review his actions and behavior from the past twelve months:

  • Prominently cited in the Ted Well’s Dolphins harassment report as an instigator in the harassment. 
  • Subpoenaed to testify in the former Patriot Aaron Hernandez murder trial (Hernandez and Pouncey are friends and former college teammates).
  • Was photographed publically wearing a “Free Hernandez” hat in support of his “friend” and refused to apologize for it.
  • Is currently being sued for his alleged involvement in a nightclub fight a couple months ago.

The guy can’t seem to stay out of trouble and has a recent history of making very poor choices. 

I don’t understand the thinking process that went into the decision to reward him with a spot on the Leadership Council.  The message it sends to the rest of the team is not a good one.  The message it sends to Pouncey is that he is actually being rewarded for his previous bad behavior. 

I believe that he will continue his bad behavior and will continue to get himself into trouble, causing problems for the team.  In fact, he will be empowered to continue.  He has never really had to face any real consequences for his behavior. 

I assume the thinking is that he will learn from the other 14 members of the Council and that there will be more voices where one will not have the opportunity influence and overshadow the others, like last year. 

Based on what happened last year and the trouble that Pouncy continues to get himself into, he does not deserve to be rewarded with a spot on the council.  If the Dolphins are trying to clean up their image – an image that was seriously damaged by the scandal last year – they should not have even considered putting him on the Council. 

I’ve seen it happen many times.  The highly talented and skilled troublemaking employee is shielded from discipline and often even rewarded because they are “too valuable” to the organization.  Never once have I seen this situation end up a positive one. 

I don’t think this end well for the Dolphins.

I hope I’m wrong.  Sadly, I’m pretty sure I’m right. 

Dolphins Harassment Case: Ted Wells Issues Report Backing Martin

Well, as I fully expected, Ted Wells issued his report today backing up Martin’s claims confirming abusive harassment from Incognito and two other team mates – Mike Pouncey and John Jerry.  The report also found harassment directed at another O lineman and an assistant trainer.

The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.

 Wells also backs up Martin’s decision to leave the team as reasonable.

The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins — which have never before been made public — corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. 

The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.

I am very pleased with these conclusions and I had doubt that Martin was being harassed to the point he felt he had to leave the team.  I’ve seen very similar bullying and victim behavior in my work and saw this clearly for what it was.

Dolphins Harassment Case: Philbin Wanted Incognito Cut After Golf Tourney Harassment

According to this ESPN NFL article, Ted Wells’ investigation has revealed that Dolphin coach Joe Philbin wanted Incognito cut after he was accused of harassing and paying off a volunteer at the team’s charity golf tourney in 2012.  Unfortunately, he was overruled and the team is now paying the price – and will pay a bigger price when this issue concludes.

I’ve seen this happen many times. Bad behavior from a star employee is ignored and excused.  Recommendations for disciplinary are overruled by management because the employee is too important to the organization.  Nothing ever good comes from this short sighted decision.  The star employee knows she got away with her bad behavior and will continue while, at the same time, the other employees in the organization know she is now above the rules damaging morale and hurting their productivity.

I was not happy with Philbin when this all started but now understand that he wanted to do the right thing but was overruled.  

Dolphins Harassment Case: Initial Investigation Interviews are Complete and Many Players are not Cooperating

Investigator, Ted Wells, has completed the initial round of interviews in the harassment investigation in the Incognito/Martin bullying harassment case.

The most interesting development during the first round is many players are being uncooperative with Mr. Wells.

Dolphins players are being less-than-forthcoming with investigator Ted Wells, according to sources familiar with the ongoing probe, and in some cases are refusing to cooperate at all. Owner Stephen Ross addressed the team last week and urged them to be candid and open with Wells, but that has not been the case and it remains to be seen if Wells is able to corroborate the lengthy accounts he was given from Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, the principles involved.

In my opinion, this means two things are happening – neither of which are good.

  1. Some players are protecting Incognito’s bullying behavior.  They know it was wrong but feel a duty to protect their popular teammate.
  2. Some players are afraid of speaking against in fear of retribution from others in the locker room and/or the Dolphin organization.  
The investigation has several more weeks to go and I will update with my opinions as information becomes available.  

Dolphin Locker Room Beginning to Fracture – Publically

The Sun Sentinel reported today that there are two Dolphins who will be speaking out against Richie Incognito next week.  I am certain that there has dissension in the locker room since this issue broke out but now it is starting to become public and will get much uglier.

I said this on November 5:

I am willing to bet that there are many more in the Dolphin locker room who hate Incognito but are unwilling to say anything.  Several of the big name vets are speaking out in support of him so the younger guys are keeping their mouths shut in fear of retribution.  I’m also certain that we are seeing only the “tip of the iceberg” of what is going on in that locker room.  I think it will get much worse and those who hate him will start speaking out.

Dolphins Harassment Case: HHHR Take on Lydon Murtha’s Article

A few days ago, former Dolphin OL Lydon Murtha wrote an “Insiders Story” about Incognito and Martin leading people to believe he is impartial and even going so far as to say “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Couple of problems with this article and Murtha’s credibility.  First, Murtha and Incognito played together on the OF for Nebraska.  They were teammates for a couple years.  Second, there is no way Murtha could have gotten to know Martin.  The 2012 Dolphin training camp started on July 27 and Murtha was cut on August 31.

Knowing these facts makes it very clear that Murtha is biased and has no credibility in this issue.

Dolphins Harassment Case: Did Team Pay Off Incognito Harassment Victim?

According to this police report, Incognito harassed a 34 year old African American female volunteer at the Dolphin annual Fins Weekend Golf Tourney on May 18, 2012 –  a few months before being selected to the team’s “Leadership” Council.

Here’s what he did:

While performing her duties, she was approached by one of the Dolphins players Richie Incognito. According to her, Mr. Incognito had been drinking and was actingvery inappropriate towards her. Ms.  states that Mr. Incognito used his golf club to touch her by rubbing it up against her vagina, then up her stomach then to her chest. He then used the club to knock a pair of sunglasses off the top of her head. After that, he proceeded to lean up against her buttocks with his private parts as if dancing, saying “Let it rain, Let it Rain!” He finally finished his inappropriate behavior by emptying bottled water in her face. 

Most damningly for the Dolphins is this little bit of information (emphasis mine):

The woman, who is black, told several media outlets she has declined to talk because she had signed a confidentiality agreement.

So it appears that the Dolphins paid the woman off to keep her quiet.  We don’t know that for sure but why else would she have signed a confidentiality agreement?

There will be a lot of turnover in the Dolphin organization before this is done.  We are only seeing the beginning…