I can’t count the number of employers that have expressed shock to me that anyone could allege that sexual harassment goes on in their workplace. Most employers have written policies prohibiting sexual harassment. They state in no uncertain terms that they do not tolerate sexual harassment. Often they find out that in fact it’s not only going on in their workplace, but that it has been pervasive and ongoing. Can that be? Yes. If you are or have been in this situation, I can offer you one small consolation, for what it’s worth: you have company. As of last week, Microsoft found itself in exactly that type of situation, after a 90–plus page e-mail thread from women alleging blatant sexual harassment surfaced.
Obviously I can’t begin to catalog all the stories, but here’s just one example, reported by Quartz: a female employee reported to her manager that during a business trip the employee of a partner company threatened to kill her unless she performed certain sexual acts. The manager’s response, allegedly, was that it ‘sounded like he was just flirting’ and that she ‘should get over it’. HR’s response: there was ‘no evidence’ and the alleged harasser didn’t work for Microsoft and so there was nothing Microsoft can do.
Are you cringing yet? You should be. There are so many things wrong with that response. First: in what universe are demands for sexual acts under threat of being killed ‘flirting‘? Second: how does an HR professional not know that an employer’s responsibility to protect its employees from harassment extends to behavior of third parties (including contractors, clients, affiliates, etc.)? For that matter, since there doesn’t appear to have been an investigation, how would the H.R. rep really have known that there was ‘no evidence’? Did s/he ask whether anyone else saw or heard the threat? Clearly s/he didn’t speak with the alleged harasser or the alleged harasser’s employer.
If the manager and H.R. professional made their comments out of ignorance, that is bad enough. Clearly whatever training Microsoft had provided up to that point would have been seriously lacking. Alternatively, both the manager and the H.R. representative may in fact have known better, but for various reasons may not have taken the policies and training seriously. The one marginal redeeming point in this matter is Microsoft’s head of HR’s response, in which she vowed to do better, inviting anyone who has suffered any harassment or discrimination to contact her directly and acknowledging that the burden of addressing sexual harassment does not rest with the women alone.
It stands to reason that Microsoft has policies and training on sexual harassment. I cannot imagine otherwise. Policies and training however, without anything more, are simply not enough. Without follow-up, how would anyone know if employees and managers are adhering to policies and implementing the training they received? In fact, it appears that at least some of the managers and even H.R. representatives were doing neither, or the one example above would have been handled much differently. According to Quartz, the e-mail thread included allegations from “dozens of women”.
While I’ve given the following takeaways on sexual harassment (all harassment really) before, I will say them again here:
- Take every allegation, every complaint seriously and promptly investigate. Microsoft is now in the news — and not in a good way–because it didn’t.
- Back up your policies with actions that show commitment. Saying that sexual harassment is prohibited is all well and good, but you must make sure that those charged with enforcing the policies actually do so–and hold them accountable when they don’t. That means that if a manager or H.R. brush off any harassment allegations they should be disciplined, and in some cases terminated. Managers, in particular senior management, need to model appropriate behavior. If they engage in the very behavior that the policies prohibit and they are not held accountable, or if they otherwise allow such behavior to go unchecked, is it any wonder that the rest of the employees do not take the policies seriously? Is it any wonder if the harassment continues unabated?
- Take the pulse regularly: Get out from behind those desks, get out from those corner offices. Talk — and listen — to your employees. They will tell you what is going on in the workplace if they can be sure that they can speak honestly without fear of retribution. Based on what they tell you, you can then begin to get an idea of whether policies are being adhered to, and how effective your training is. Speak with managers and H.R. rep’s responsible for enforcing the policies and find out what if any guidance they need. Consult with in-house or outside employment counsel to get appropriate guidance.
- Make sure that your policies include clear, user-friendly complaint procedures and that your employees know about them. Employees may know they’re being harassed but if there’s no clear mechanism for reporting it then you cannot hide behind “We didn’t know”.
- Make sure your anti-harassment policies and your complaint procedure includes protection against retaliation: Yes, you need to reassure your employees that they will not suffer any repercussions for reporting concerns about harassment–and then you need to make sure that in fact they don’t suffer such repercussions. Anyone who does retaliate needs to be held accountable. Anything less gives would-be harassers the message that while you say you don’t tolerate harassment you don’t really mean it, and that will only serve to perpetuate the same abuses that your policies claim to prohibit.
I’ll stop here for now. Sadly, I suspect I’ll have plenty of opportunity –and need–in the near future to say more.
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