WASHINGTON — After a headline-making year of sexual harassment claims in corporate America and a statistical bump in U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges, it may come as no surprise that employers are rethinking their understanding of and approach to the problem.
But traditional, legal definition-based policies and compliance-based training have not proven effective at preventing bad behavior — and may even encourage it, Elizabeth Bille, senior director of prevention education at EVERFI, told employers at the Society for Human Resource Management's Employment Law and Legislative Conference last week.
"What we have done in the past to address harassment in the workplace has been focused on compliance and incident response," she said. "What we haven't been focusing on as truly is prevention."
Bille told employers to think about the situation using a metaphor about workplace injuries. It's as if employers are teaching workers about what to do when an injury occurs, and how to provide first aid, but they aren't instructing workers on how to avoid injury in the first place.
To achieve that prevention component, Bille detailed four elements that a comprehensive program might include.
Employers need to pay attention to the messaging and communication plans behind their policies, Bille said. Whether programming takes the form of town halls, panels or other formats, HR should assure workers that it is working to educate and communicate about harassment.
"Your programming has to be rooted in a strong set of policies," Bille said, adding that employers will have to look at both how accessible policies are to members of the organization and how frequently they're mentioned in different contexts. "Are they sitting on the back of the shelf in the back as something you did in employee onboarding, or is it part of the ethos of our organization?"
HR should frame communications in the context of prevention specifically and can do this by engaging what Bille calls the healthy majority. "Most employees in your organization are doing the right thing" she said. "They're coming to work everyday and working hard, and they want to work in a healthy, constructive culture. So we need to mobilize them — they're already on our side — to be part of the solution."
This framing also can extend into training. Bille cited the work of one researcher who concluded that training modules with an overly legalistic or punitive tone create a negative response among employees and lead them to feel "bucketed" as either a potential harasser or harassment victim.
Instead, Bille suggested employers take a more positive approach using organizational values as the hook for messaging to employees. She offered a formatting example: "This is a great place to work, and our values say that we treat each other X, Y, Z, and here's how we do it."
#2: Critical processes
Critical processes are a relatively new part of the conversation around harassment prevention, Bille said, but they refer to a framework that is already well-understood in business: the notion of taking the same business planning and rigor that organizations apply to other strategic initiatives and applying them to harassment.
There are several questions, some of which Bille listed in her presentation, that can move this part of the conversation forward:
Is the employer undertaking goal-setting for these initiatives?
Is it collecting data?
Is it looking at compliant rates and where those complaints are coming from?
Is it using those findings to inform what it's doing next in harassment reduction?
This point may be a particularly tricky one to get right, according to Bille. "Legal may have some thoughts about gathering data or who can see that data or what to do with that data," she said. "I think you really can't attack the problem unless you have data about it. Otherwise you're just working on best guesses and hunches."
Similar to messaging, policies should focus on the same positive framing that underscores communication. That means spelling out what employers want employees to do, Bille said, not just what they don't want them to do; "That is a far more powerful motivator."
It's okay, for example to say employees will be fired for violating a policy. "We need to say that, too," Bille said, "but that's not the only thing we have to say." Employers can train employees on solutions and teach them how to defuse problematic situations — and reinforce to the healthy majority that they will be supported in their decision to intervene.
"If they don't think that people are going to step up and step in, they tend not to as well."
Senior director of prevention education, EVERFI
That last point is important, according to Bille, because social norms can discourage employees from intervening when they witness a violation, and employers may inadvertently encourage them not to report bad behavior. "People, especially when faced with certain difficult situations … tend to defer to the cues of people around them," Bille said. "If they don't think that people are going to step up and step in, they tend not to as well."
To that end, bystander training also should be included as a way to address employees not as potential abusers or victims, but as people who have a shared responsibility in preventing harassment, Bille said. Some local laws, including New York City's Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act, already require bystander intervention training. "If you don't include it, you're missing a huge opportunity to engage your workforce to be part of the solution," Bille said.
HR departments will need system-wide, top-to-bottom buy-in if they want to address the issue of harassment meaningfully, Bille said. "You've got to have CEOs and chairs of the board, leadership [and] managers," Bille said, "not just once a year but all the time."
Bille cited a Harvard Business Review article that suggested the words leaders use to communicate about harassment have a direct impact on how employees view harassment. Similar to HR's own communications, leaders should eschew "tepid, over-lawyered language" in favor of stronger, aspiration statements, she said.
"I would submit [that] talking about it is an important thing, not a bad thing," Bille said. "If you have a problem internally, you talk about it. It'll show that you have transparency, that you want to take the situation very seriously."