Post Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Roy Moore, to name a few, we are having tough — but honest — conversations about the ubiquity of sexual harassment and abuse. It’s clearly time to embrace real reform. One thing that’s plain is that workplaces must have robust anti-harassment policies and practices in place if they are going to avoid incidences of abuse or weather these incidents when they do happen. Here are three things that need to happen to make places of employment safer for everyone.
The first thing is probably the hardest. That is, sexual harassment needs to be discussed during the hiring process. Prospective hires should be told that the organization is committed to creating a workplace that is free of sexual harassment and abuse. Hiring managers should assess the risks of sexual abuse associated with the position being filled, and discuss them with candidates. Applicants for teaching or coaching positions should be asked what they will do to ensure that no boundaries are crossed with students. A small tech start-up, where the expectation is that new employees will need to work late hours on site, should ask applicants how they think sexual harassment can be avoided in such situations. These discussions will help determine whether and how the employee will fit into a workplace culture that is committed to safety, and it’s as important to address these workplace norms as it is a prospective hire’s experience and qualifications.
In my work with organizations, employers show the most resistance to this suggestion. I suspect that’s because it’s hard to talk about sexual harassment. To do so is an acknowledgment that it happens. Until recently, this is something that few people were willing to openly admit. The first step in building an organizational culture in which sexual harassment and abuse are rare is to hire people who understand that safety is a top priority. This applies whether you are hiring a school president or a customer service representative.
Second, implement a robust policy on sexual harassment. Every organization needs a policy on sexual harassment and abuse under Title VII and Title IX. Effective ones define what sexual harassment is and clearly state consequences for violating the policy. If an employee breaks the rules, they must be held accountable, without exception.
Policies must also explain the steps that an employee should take if they have been harassed by a colleague, customer, or supervisor. Stories about sexual abuse in the workplace are often discounted if the employee fails to notify human resources. Most employees do not go to human resources with serious complaints because they understand that the human resources department does not work for them; it works for the company. Good policies outline internal and external options for reporting harassment. Explanations about the internal option must disclose limits to confidentiality, such as whether a report about sexual harassment automatically triggers a notification to senior managers. The external reporting option should direct employees to a rape crisis center or victims’ advocacy organization where they can receive confidential care and counsel. The policy should send the message that the organization cares for its employees’ safety and well-being and will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse.
Finally, figure out ahead of time what the company response will be if a key employee is accused of harassment. Every workplace or school has its own Harvey Weinstein — or two or three. These employees are the untouchables. They are beloved teachers, top-selling software reps, winning coaches, and brilliant CEOs. They are so talented and productive that they are viewed as critical to the organization’s success, and no one wants to see them leave. It’s not unusual for supervisors and staff in human resources to bend the rules to keep these performers happy.
Put a crisis plan in place that outlines the steps that will be taken if an untouchable is accused of sexual harassment. Remember that offenders purposefully target people they perceive to be vulnerable or less believable, such as people of color or young employees — and they count on you to take their word over those of anyone making an allegation. These steps should include hiring an outside party to investigate and committing to follow the investigator’s recommendations, even if they are to fire the offender. Top leaders at the company and the board of directors should sign off on the plan ahead of time, and every employee should be made aware of the plan. In this way, decisions about what to do will not have to be made in the midst of a crisis, and powerful employees and executives will not get the kind of protection Weinstein did for so many years.
Bringing these conversations to your school or workplace is a massive disruption to business as usual, and that’s exactly what we need.