Seattle HR Collective: Maintaining a Respectful Harassment-Free Work Environment

March 29, 2019
March 29, 2019 HRCollective

Seattle HR Collective: Maintaining a Respectful Harassment-Free Work Environment

Angela Vogel and Mary Sanden of Davis, Wright, Tremaine developed an interactive training entitled, “Maintaining a Respectful Harassment-Free Work Environment” following the peak of the #MeToo movement so that managers, in particular, those in HR, understand their obligations and that they are the role models for acceptable behavior in the workplace. Davis, Wright Tremaine delivered on a lively discussion and educated us all with a training they deliver routinely for companies large and small.

We’ve all been witness to the news headlines in the last couple of years featuring individuals such as Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and even Mariah Carey for allegations and reports that they’ve harassed his or her employees or colleagues on the job. In Carey’s situation, it was reported that she made unwanted sexual advances against her former male bodyguard. In addition, Carey’s former female manager reported that she was sexually inappropriate in the workplace which created a hostile work environment. Harassers are not just men. How do we create a respectful workplace for everybody and how do we set standards? Title VII was passed decades ago but harassment is still prevalent in the workplace in 2019. How is this possible?

Why Employees Often Don’t Report Workplace Harassment

Vogel and Sanden specified that employees often don’t report workplace harassment despite lots of training due to fear of retaliation, self-doubt, fear that someone might have misinterpreted “subtle” conduct, not wanting to make waves at work, due to the feeling that nothing will change and/or for fear of unwanted stigma. Some believe there will be a lack of consequence, and people don’t want to jeopardize his or her career.

Yet social media and other forms of communication are empowering individuals to band together when companies don’t take action. For example, reports surfaced that female employees at Nike had reported countless acts of harassment and discrimination on the job, yet nothing was done. Some female employees came together and surveyed their female colleagues independently and the results caused many male Nike executives to leave the company.

So Many Gray Areas

Are there some terms of endearment such as “honey” or “dear” to refer to someone as inappropriate? Also, is it inappropriate to comment on a colleague’s appearance or dress? Many responded and said that it depended upon who said it to whom, the person’s tone and the frequency of occurrence. For example, a female prison guard got hugged by her male superior frequently to the point where it was determined a jury could rule it a hostile working environment and constitute sexual harassment. Therefore, the case will go to trial.   

What is Harassment?

Harassment is prohibited under state and federal laws- a form of discrimination of conduct based on protected status that is unwelcome and pervasive enough to create a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment.

An exercise was conducted where participants were told to imagine being at a bar with some co-workers and hearing two of colleagues exchange several dirty jokes over the course of the gathering. As a manager, the wisest approach is to shut down the behavior and have a follow-up meeting and file a formal report to discuss the issue at hand. The advantage to addressing bad behavior immediately is that rumors are quick to spread and the company is liable, especially when superiors don’t appear to do anything about stopping bad behavior. Determine what actions to take such as discipline, termination, etc. Be an upstander, not a bystander.  The intention does not matter. What matters is the impact poor actions have on an individual(s). Obligations to HR reports and appropriate action should be taken as seriously theft or fraud issues in the workplace. In addition, since the rise of #MeToo, women (and men) are all the less tolerant of harassment which includes what occurs on the job. Offenders can be clients, vendors, etc. Your knowledge is the company’s knowledge. Your inaction is the company’s inaction.

How to Deal with Dating in the Workplace

Dating happens and many happy couples first meet at work. How do you deal with dating in the workplace proactively to make sure nothing goes awry? Have good policies in place. Dating should not occur with someone who is managing or has influence over the other person’s career. The relationship should also be disclosed to Human Resources. If there is a conflict of interest, management and HR should find a way to adjust the dynamic. It is beneficial for management and HR to have strong partnerships so they can know how to handle these kinds of issues.

Heighten Your Role

As someone who is a manager or an HR leader, it’s important to be a role model for appropriate conduct in the workplace, stop inappropriate conduct when it occurs, respond to complaints and make sure HR is involved with accepting the concern and taking appropriate action. If you see something, say something! Research shows that even men and women who are subjected to criminal violation will often diminish the event and try to pretend it didn’t happen. It’s our responsibility as HR and all company leaders to make sure we protect our people from harassment in the workforce.

Overall, the training was a great reminder of appropriate workplace behavior and how HR managers and leaders can work on resolving workplace issues mindfully and efficiently. Thank you for Angela Vogel and Mary Sanden for presenting at our March Meetup!


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