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.

Steps to Help Your Employees Understand the Details of Their Benefits

Tell them real-life stories

This week I’m going to cover a small but very important tactical element of HR. Although it’s a small thing, it leads to a much larger strategic element of building a high-performing workplace culture

I’m a strong believer in delivering an amazing onboarding experience for employees. I built one at one employer from the ground up and I had the pleasure of  inheriting an outstanding one at another employer.

Today’s post is going to deal with one portion of the onboarding process – the Benefits discussion.  This is often the most confusing and boring part because HR typically comes in and goes through the insurance benefits using HR and insurance industry jargon. As a result, most employees don’t understand most of what is being said and just tune out and start looking at their phones. This is unfortunate because an organization’s benefits are an important and  critical piece of the total rewards program and employees need to fully be comfortable with understanding them.

I think employees really need to understand all of their benefits and there should be the appropriate amount of time put into the onboarding schedule to make sure employees really do fully understand them. We owe our employees the extra effort to help them understand their benefits rather than just handing them a packet of papers or just helping them logon to the onboarding site and leaving them with an hour to review and enroll.  

So here’s how I do it.

In my schedule, the benefits discussion occurs immediately after all the required hiring paperwork is completed. This way, they are still pretty fresh and enthusiastic.  I always go into the HR portion which includes the insurance and benefit portion of onboarding telling the new hires that this portion is going to be the most exciting and interesting part of the entire  process. I’m obviously being silly and I purposely exaggerate this because they and everybody else has experienced the opposite so it grabs their attention.

I then like to tell real-life stories about how the different benefits work. These are my stories based on my experiences and I’m certain you have your own story bank you can go to when communicating benefit details to your employee team.

For instance as I’m talking about the medical benefits, most people understand what the deductible means and how the co-pay plays into that but many don’t really understand what the Annual Max Out of Pocket means.

So I tell a real-life story about an employee (this was at a previous employer and whose identity I keep confidential) who had a heart attack while out camping with his family. He was life flighted to the hospital and had open heart surgery.  Well, when everything was said and done and the employee added up all the bills that came, the total was over $1,000,000. Fortunately for him and his family, the company health insurance plan had a maximum out of pocket of $3500.  What does this mean? Simple. The employee only had to pay $3500 total for the episode.. And this all happened in the summer so he had to continue treatment, cardiac rehab, and many other doctor appointments and because he reached his MOP, he paid nothing for the rest of the year. Every time I tell this story, I see clear understanding in the new hires’ eyes because this story always makes it obvious what the max out of pocket is.

Another story I like to tell is when describing the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This benefit is very often forgotten and rarely used. I believe strongly in it as I’ve used it myself and tell the story of a couple employees I helped through substance abuse problems (again at a previous employer keeping names confidential).  

I had employees come to me asking for help with their substance abuse. They feared they would lose their job but my company believes in helping employees who ask for help. So I gave them all the EAP info and explained to them how the EAP works and strongly encouraged them to call and get the counseling help they need. I also explained that in addition to the free counseling sessions, our medical insurance has programs to help them clean up. They took advantage of these programs, cleaned themselves up, and remained good productive employees.

I love telling this story.

The last story I’m going to share this week is about the Flexible Savings Account (FSA). I tell them I love this benefit because it’s like an interest free, tax free loan to pay for medical related expenses like co-pays and deductibles. I tell them I usually max out the benefit and contribute the full $2600 and at the end of the year, if I have some left over, I treat myself to some very nice eye glasses and/or prescription sunglasses.  I also go back to the story above about the maximum out of pocket and tell them the heart attack employee had about $1600 left in his FSA and applied that to the MOP amount of $3500 he owed. So he only had to come up with $1900 for the entire cost of the episode.

There are, of course, other stories I tell to help our new employees understand the more complicated details of their benefits but I may share those at another time.. I always get positive comments from the new hires who appreciate me taking the time to sit down with them and going through the benefits we offer and explaining, through real-life stories, how they work.

Not only does this help them personally in understanding their benefits package, it sends the strong message that the organization sincerely cares about them and their well-being.  It’s an important element in the strategy of building that all important high-performing culture that we all strive for.