Sexual Harassment Training and Why HR Cannot Ignore Rumors

October 20, 2017 by Josh Hrala

Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere on Mars, you’ve probably heard about the what’s going on in Hollywood: movie producer and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein is now the subject of an enormous sexual harassment scandal that has led to him getting kicked out of the Academy and his own company.

Countless women have come forward with reports that Weinstein, at one point or another, sexually harassed or assaulted them, reigniting an entire movement on Twitter and making all of us contemplate the situation, how we would have handled it personally, and why no one at Weinstein’s company came forward earlier.

That last bit is important. Not only does is seem like everyone in Hollywood knew about Weinstein’s actions, but they all ignored them as well, leading to rumors spreading without any action ever taking place.

So, what can HR managers learn from all of this? Well, for the most part, it should cause HR to reevaluate how they handle sexual harassment training inside their organizations to ensure that rumors are reported and investigated before the situation gets worse and more people are victimized by the possible harasser.

Here’s what HR can do to make sure sexual harassment is found early, investigated promptly, and acted upon swiftly.

Sexual Harassment Training: What You Need to Know

First off, what constitutes sexual harassment?

“‘Sexual harassment’ is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently persistent or offensive to unreasonably interfere with an employee’s job performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment,” states the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

“Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidelines as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when, for example: a) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, b) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or c) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”

That seems straightforward enough, but it’s important that you realize that sexual harassment often doesn’t occur like it’s shown in training videos where the harassment is obvious almost too a satirical degree.

Yes, sexual assaults, unwanted advances, and sexual discrimination are all well-known forms of harassment. However, you also must consider that ANY unwanted sexual advances – from jokes and gestures to poking and grabbing – can all constitute harassment.

Since sexual harassment can come in the form of many different actions, HR needs to be ready to investigate EVERY claim that is brought to their attention and then take actions to remedy the situation. If a victim comes forward saying they were harassed, you need to act. Don’t sit there and ponder whether or not this is ‘real’ harassment or not, get up and do something about it.

Sexual Harassment Training: Understand Reporting and the Lack Thereof

Most sexual harassment incidents go unreported.

“After conducting a qualitative study of 31 women in predominantly masculine industries, we also saw that sexual harassment continues to be a problem for women,” reports the Harvard Business Review who performed a study on sexual harassment reporting a few years back.

“75% of the women we interviewed mentioned they had been sexually harassed at work. They cited it as a cost to being attractive, and few spoke up for themselves or others. Indeed, a 2015 survey showed that 71% of women do not report sexual harassment, and far fewer bystanders report harassment that they have witnessed.”

This can be seen easily today, too. As more and more women came forward to report harassment by Weinstein, the #MeToo movement, which was started a few years ago by activist Tarana Burke, came back to life with millions of people coming forward with their personal stories of harassment.

So, with so many women coming forward, the logical question is why has no action had been taken by HR officials to quell this onslaught of harassment? But there’s a simple answer: rumors go ignored.

When it comes to sexual harassment, it doesn’t take a genius to realize why many people do not report the misconduct. Think about it: your boss does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, that boss holds all of the power in this scenario, and these cases are often two-sided, making it your word against the bosses.

This power dynamic leads to underreporting because people don’t want to put their careers in jeopardy. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t make sense because the victim did nothing wrong and should feel empowered enough to report harassment when it occurs. This is, sadly, not the case.

“Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation. That could be hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities,” reports Claire Cain Miller for The New York Times.

“Their fears are grounded in reality, researchers have concluded. In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey.”

Another reason people don’t report sexual harassment is because the person doing the harassment is a “superstar” at the company who can do no wrong, leading many women to believe that their report will land on deaf ears. This, too, is sadly true, especially if the harasser has a reputation as a harasser already.

“Sometimes the harasser is a superstar — someone who makes the company so much money that he feels powerful and uninhibited in his behavior because the company has considerable incentive to look the other way,” continues Miller in her report for The Times.

“The more someone has a reputation for harassing, the less likely a woman is to complain, Ms. Berdahl [a researcher from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business] said: ‘It’s natural to conclude that if he’s been getting away with this for a long time, then the organization tolerates it, so why become the problem yourself by going to H.R.?’”

So, in other words, if the person is already known as a sexual harasser, the reporting of the person’s behaviour drops even lower, allowing what might be a sexual predator to continue the abhorrent behavior unchecked.

As an HR professional, you cannot let this happen. If you take your job seriously, you need to perform your role by investigating what is going on and taking appropriate actions to make it stop regardless of how well the harasser does in their role.

Sexual Harassment Training: Dealing With Rumors

Okay, so now that you know that most people will not report harassment when it occurs, you need to know how to be proactive.

One thing that the Weinstein scandal has proven is that a lot of people surrounding the harasser know of their behaviour. Some of them have been harassed themselves or they may have friends who have been or they may have simply heard about it through the grapevine.

For Weinstein, the evidence of his consistent misconduct has even entered into pop culture numerous times. Back in 2012, 30 Rock had numerous bits about Weinstein, proving that his misconduct was well-known in the industry.

“30 Rock has a history of making jokes exposing men in power preying upon women. The show made a crack about Bill Cosby five years ago too, which co-showrunner Robert Carlock said was not an accident,” reports Christopher Rosa for Glamour.

“Perhaps that’s what Fey’s intention was with Weinstein too: to call him out, subtly, in the hope of effecting change. Maybe that’s what Entourage and Meryl Streep and Seth MacFarlane were trying to do as well. Thankfully, the world is finally listening.”

What HR can learn from this is that when harassment occurs, the department may not receive a direct complaint from the victim – in fact, they probably won’t – but chances are people are talking about it, especially if the perpetrator does this all of the time.

It’s important that HR take action when these moments come up. Just because there isn’t a report doesn’t mean HR is off the hook. An investigation should still be carried out and if the evidence is there, HR needs to take action swiftly.

“Victims of sexual harassment and assault already have to carry an enormous burden. It is unreasonable to expect every victim to come forward and protect everyone else,” reports Liane Davey for Quartz.

“And so for anyone who cares about a creating a work environment that is safe and respectful for all people, it’s time to make a pledge to refuse to be a passive bystander. If you’re confronted with rumors about assault and harassment in your workplace, it’s absolutely necessary to listen, ask questions, and speak out.”

So, if you hear something, act upon it. Start an investigation even if the person being accused is in a place of power. This means that you may, in fact, have to investigate someone who pays your salary. In a way, you are the internal affairs office of a police force, making sure that everyone – even the chief – follows the rules so that everyone gets the justice they deserve. No one should come to work fearing sexual harassment from anyone, including from upper management ‘superstars.’

Sexual Harassment Training: The Investigation

So, you heard a rumor and want to launch an investigation into the claims. What do you do now?

Well, next to layoffs, internal investigations might be one of the hardests tasks HR has to perform on a regular basis.

The best way to pull this off is, like many other things, to make a plan of action before you start. You should create this plan before a sexual harassment case appears so you are prepared for any incident in the future. Don’t wait until you need it to make it.

Start with a simple list that answers these questions: who will you investigate, what are you investigating, what evidence are you looking for, and who will you interview? The experts over at SHRM say that these four areas will cover many of the high-level areas of your investigation. They may seem like simple questions but they help get your mind wrapped around the task ahead of you.

You want to collect physical evidence – emails, CCTV footage, etc – before scheduling interviews with witnesses, the victim, and the suspect. Make sure that you maintain confidentiality throughout the entire process so that the victim, witnesses, and suspect do not have their reputations tarnished by the the investigation. Just like the court of law, you have to find the truth before a conviction and everyone is innocent until that point.

Here are some quick things for you to consider when leading a sexual harassment investigation, according to SHRM’s guidelines:

  • Make a plan that details your investigation.
  • Gather physical evidence if possible.
  • Schedule interviews in a way to avoids “he said, she said” situations.
  • Do not be overly aggressive with anyone in the investigation.
  • Determine the credibility of your witnesses.
  • Keep a report of everything. We mean everything.
  • Don’t take forever. This is a timely manner.
  • Maintain confidentiality throughout the entire process.
  • Come to a conclusion and act upon it.

According to SHRM, that last step is a sticking point for many HR professionals. They went through all of this work to find out what happened and then they get cold feet. If you find proof that harassment or assault has occurred, it is up to you to do something about it.

In order to have that process work out and the person actually fired or – in some cases – charged with a crime, you need to make sure that you keep accurate reports throughout the process so that the person cannot claim they were fired or charged unjustly. For more all of those guidelines, we suggest you read around the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) site for legal details and also consult your legal team when needed.

Sexual Harassment Training: The Final Say

We’ve covered a lot here. Let’s go over everything again briefly.

When it comes to sexual harassment, HR cannot sit by and let these actions occur even if the person accused is a high level executive that makes a lot of money for the organization.

You need to understand that even if no one is coming forward with a direct report of harassment, it doesn’t mean that harassment isn’t happening. To uncover harassment, it is far better to listen to rumors and then investigate them to see if they are true rather than ignore them.

In other words, victims are very likely to never report the abuse they receive. This does not excuse HR from looking into it at all.

When these whispers and rumors come up, start a professional investigation into what might be happening, gather evidence, interview witnesses, talk with the accused, and – if something did happen based on your findings – take the appropriate actions with the counsel of your legal team.

This approach is the only way the harassment will stop, and it’s painfully obvious that sexual harassment training isn’t going to stop these situations from coming up.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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