CHICAGO — Men attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s conference received a call to action June 19, with attorney Jonathan Segal asking them to "be affirmative partners to stand up and speak out when we see sexism."
Male allies are an important part of addressing workplace discrimination and harassment based on sex, said Segal, a partner at Duane Morris. "The challenges we have are too great for half the population alone to solve them," he said. "In these situations, there’s something that would be tragically ironic that the responsibility to prevent and remedy harassment should be left to women when women are, more often than men, the victims."
So what does it take to be an ally? "It's not a pin you wear; it's not something you put on your twitter profile," Segal said. "It begins with the fundamental belief that we have to make sure that 'equal employment opportunity' and 'nondiscrimination' [are] more than just buzzwords."
2018 needs to be the year when men make sure that harassing behavior doesn't survive, let alone thrive, he said. And many are in a good position to do so: In many organizations, men have disproportionate power, Segal said. That can magnify wrongdoings, but it also comes with a huge opportunity to do what's right, especially when it comes to the day-to-day. "We need, as men, to make sure that we model respectful behavior," he said. "We need to think more about the things that aren't necessarily harassing per se but send a cultural message that women aren’t equal partners." These actions can include talking over women in meetings, or giving a male employee credit for a woman's idea. This doesn’t mean you can’t have disagreements at work, Segal said, but "we can disagree civilly."
It does, however, mean refraining from excusing others' sexist behavior. For example, if a male employee makes a sexist joke, it's not appropriate to turn to the lone woman in the room and say, "He didn't mean it." This signals that the joke wouldn't be a problem if she wasn't there, Segal said; "You don't have to be a woman to be offended by sexism."
And regardless of gender, HR professionals need to ensure that they're approachable, Segal said, so that individuals have somewhere to bring concerns. Be visible in your organization so that people know you and, hopefully, get to like you. You want to be a person that they know will be respectful when they're deciding whether or not to raise a concern.
It's also important to have your response to such concerns prepared. Segal suggests something along the lines of, "Thank you for raising your concerns with me. I want you to know we take them seriously." Then explain the process that will follow, and thank them again.
If you don't practice this, it’s too easy to say the wrong thing, he said. Employees need to know that while they may not always get what they want from HR, their concerns will be taken seriously and they'll be treated with respect.
It's also important for HR professionals and managers to intervene when they see harassment. The inappropriate joke in the meeting? Say, "That's not okay. Stop. We'll talk about it later," suggested Segal. "You want people to know that you won't tolerate [such] conduct. Corrective action can be later, but it's important to signal [that] then and there."
"We can't be passive bystanders in HR," Segal said. "In many of these high-profile cases … people knew what was going on but didn't say something. You have to do what's right and yes, sometimes there's a risk in speaking up." But "if your employees see you walk by and do nothing, then there are two wrongs."
HR also must ensure that non-retaliation is a reality, he said; otherwise, the complaint procedure won’t be used. And retaliation doesn't just refer to firing, for example. It's the day-to-day interactions. If someone is treated just fine in meetings but ignored the rest of the day, it sends the message that the person doesn't exist, and that will resound in your workplace. We need to find a way to stop harassment while still maximizing inclusion, Segal said.
Finally, HR must have executive buy-in, he said. HR can only do the right things if it has the support of other leaders. "HR plays a critical role in, but does not own, civility." One of worst things executives can do is say "HR made me do this," or "this is coming from HR." It's critical that people know their leaders won't shy away from corrective action, he said; if people want to lead, they have to be responsible, and that includes delivering hard messages.