Fixing Your Harassment Crisis Before It Hits

Stopping sexual harassment at work
Suppose your organization learned that its flagship process, product, or service had a catastrophic flaw—one so serious that if left unaddressed it could harm the public, ruin the organization, or cause it to rapidly lose its market share to the competition.
How would your organization act? Would it issue a policy, set up some reporting systems, schedule an annual training on how to adapt, then call it a day? That would be a prescription for extinction. Instead, there’d be a multi-pronged crisis response that involved actions and implementation of new procedures and policies. The focus would be specific, unrelenting, ongoing, and led from the top.
Now compare that response to how we’ve been treating sexual harassment. After all, for the past 20 years organizations have implemented policies, hotlines, training, internal complaint systems … and still outrages continue.
No wonder we’re in a period of cultural adjustment regarding sexual harassment. In fact, what we’re reading about now reflects the findings of the EEOC’s 2016 seminal Harassment Study. If the prevalence of sexual harassment has created a crisis, as the news and commentators suggest, then it should be treated as one. That means devoting the same level of organizational focus and actions that would be used for any other crisis. The old strategies, on their own, have become “check the box” actions used to document compliance. They have not created a lasting change in how people are treated in the workplace.
The real problem in terms of addressing sexual and other forms of harassment and improper conduct is that those issues have not historically been viewed or treated as priorities, as necessary for the survival of the organization. Whether stated out loud or not, they’ve not been seen as vital operational issues.
Effective sexual harassment training
If your organization intends to change that, if you want to avoid getting swept up in the consequences of outrageous behavior, here are 5 ingredients for a successful initiative:

1. Commitment

Starting with senior leaders there must be credible, unwavering commitment to stopping harassment and improper conduct. This involves how they act towards one another and with others to (a) prevent improper behavior and (b) encourage others to come forward and report it. They must charge others with supporting this initiative, create urgency as they would with any other crisis, and commit their energies and resources to make non-tolerance of inappropriate behavior and modeling of appropriate behavior ongoing operational standards.

2. Communication

We’re all used to having leaders send out an email or make a short video and call it a day. While those may be good first steps to keep the organization informed and prevent misinformation from spreading, true change will come about only if leaders follow them up with in- person, sincere communication. It should be ongoing, occur both publicly and privately, and take advantage of multiple media and formats.

3. Content

Telling people that harassment and improper behaviors must stop and reported if issues arise is critical. Employees have to know what the expectations are, but that knowledge will not automatically lead to the desired actions. Leaders and team members need to be able to translate knowledge into everyday actions that can help them prevent or correct problem situations. To be effective, training needs to be presented by the proper delivery means [which can vary due to audience and logistics] and linked to operational priorities with clear behavioral standards. And, it must be designed to persuade people to speak up and act rather than ignore or walk away from what they experience or learn about.

4. Consequences

Actions speak louder than words. When standards are violated, action must be taken. Period. Giving a pass to superstars or big shots at any level undermines the credibility and seriousness of the organization’s commitment and is a death knell for serious change.

5. Continuity

Changing long-standing behaviors and maintaining new habits requires persistence. A superficial plan developed “just for the moment” will lead to cosmetic and fleeting results. Leaders must be persistent and consistent in their behaviors. Training must be followed up by reinforcement. Standards should be regularly discussed with the workforce (at all levels).
Let’s go back to my initial premise: Wouldn’t your organization implement plans involving these steps if survival were on the line? And wouldn’t senior leaders spare no expense and throw their efforts into keeping your enterprise alive?
The good news is that the five ingredients I’ve listed are all relatively inexpensive in terms of dollars spent. The biggest “costs” will be calculated in leadership attention and organizational commitment to changing daily conduct. The benefits will come in terms of reducing the incidences of harassment and related misconduct (helping avoid damage to your organization) and creating a more productive, efficient workplace.
If the news and actions of recent weeks hold up, change is on the way. Will the changes stick? Or are headed to another round of scandals? You have the power to decide the outcome for your organization.

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