How to set effective workplace harassment policies

How your organization proactively addresses harassment and discrimination issues is critical to maintaining a productive, collaborative and respectful workplace culture. Here's how to set policies that matter.

How to address harassment before your workplace turns toxic

As Amy Polefrone prepared to deliver another round of Respectful Workplace training, she braced herself for the inevitable quip. But for the first time in 28 years, it didn’t come. That’s when she knew change may finally be starting to take hold.

“For the first time, no one said to me, ‘Oh, sexual harassment training — so, you’re going to teach me how to harass someone? Yuk yuk, ha ha ha.’ And that’s when I knew that these movements — #TimesUp and #MeToo — had started to really make an impact,” says Polefrone, president and CEO of HR Strategy Group. “I’ve seen more change in the public narrative in the last four or five months than I’ve seen in the 28 years I’ve been doing this.”

And some of that change is being driven as much by the companies instituting the training as the attendees themselves.

“Companies are realizing they can’t just do these boring compliance-driven webinars, check off the box on the form and cross their fingers,” Polefrone says. “They finally understand that if you want to make an impact and change the culture, you have to go deeper and have these tough conversations that are two-way streets.”  

These kinds of conversations are incredibly important. Recent research from LegalZoom found that only 26 percent of employees have faith that their company can swiftly handle workplace issues, while 44 percent say they don’t believe their organizations could handle issues appropriately, a major concern considering one in six employees surveyed have quit a job because of issues like harassment in the office.

The report, “Reality of the Modern Workplace: Understanding Employee Empowerment,” surveyed 1,128 adults between Dec. 7 and 8, 2017, and found that one in 10 respondents reported that their company never addresses standards and employee procedures. While 52 percent of workers reported having an employee handbook available at their current job, less than half said their handbook is up to date and inclusive of all guidelines. Less than half even have an HR department (47 percent) or direct managers (46 percent) to whom they can report issues, and slightly less than a quarter (24 percent) said they had a way to anonymously submit a complaint. Even if there is a process for reporting, many respondents say they felt they’d be penalized if they challenged the harassment; not only that, twice as many women as men feel this way, according to the research.

Here is a look at how you can ensure a positive, productive workplace environment — before you lose valuable talent over lax procedures or a toxic workplace culture.

Review your policies and processes

The first step in making positive cultural changes is to take a close look at your organization’s existing policies and procedures, says Polefrone.

Is what already have in place more than just standard legal boilerplate? Are your policies and processes aligned with your company’s values? Does your organization’s policy handbook outline acceptable versus unacceptable behavior and spell out consequences if those values are not adhered to?

This is a more difficult step for smaller businesses, which might not have an HR department, says Laura Goldberg, CMO of LegalZoom, but having an easily accessible handbook with clear policies and processes is imperative.

“Don’t look at it like an insurmountable obstacle, look at it as an opportunity to make sure that your handbooks are up-to-date, available, and easy to understand,” she says.

Most HR handbooks are long, dense and packed with legalese; try to break down concepts into simpler language to better appeal to your employees, Goldberg says. Don’t stop at outlining the expectations for behavior, either, says Polefone; include language outlining how incidents will be acknowledged, investigated and handled, up to and including what will result in termination. And your outline of behaviors should also forbid retaliation.

“It comes down to creating an environment where your employees feel they’ll be listened to, so that if something does happen, it’s not ignored or dismissed or swept under the rug — that your leadership is asking themselves, ‘How did we let this person down? And how can we make it right?’” Polefone says.

More importantly, you should follow through.

“That means if they come to you to report an incident, you respond with, ‘Thank you for having the courage to come to us. Here’s what we do,’ and then explain the process, and do everything in your power to keep them anonymous,” Goldberg says, adding that it is equally important to follow up after you’ve investigated and come to a conclusion about the incident or incidents.

“No matter how things conclude, it’s important to close the loop — and yes, there are privacy concerns — but there needs to be a way to keep them informed about how you handled things and show them results. This also needs to be done publicly; showing how your organization handles reporting of incidents as well as addressing them,” she says.

Improve training by focusing on values

How you handle anti-harassment, anti-racism and anti-bullying training is critical. A boring, compliance-driven webinar just isn’t going to cut it anymore, Polefrone says. HR Strategy Group frames its training as holistic, respectful workplace training, which has made a huge difference in how it’s been received, she says.

“By framing the whole conversation as ‘respectful workplace’ training, we’re able to diffuse the defensiveness and the ‘Oh, I was just making a joke! Everyone’s way too PC nowadays’ arguments,” Polefrone says. “What it comes down to is that everyone must align with the company’s values — and anything that takes away from that undermines the values. I can’t think of a company whose values don’t include treating everyone with respect. So, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying — framing these all as what they are, which is the exact opposite of a respectful workplace, is critical for success.”

HR Strategy Group’s training includes case studies as well as opportunities for participants to engage in small-group conversations for 20-minute stints to encourage better communication and understanding of how harassment impacts people personally and professionally, Polefrone says.

Incorporate bystander intervention training

Bystander intervention training — one of the more effective training methods — is a new addition to HR Strategy Group’s training agenda, Polefrone says. In this mode of training, individuals are taught how to recognize harassment or problematic behavior as it unfolds and how to intervene.

“It’s one thing to go through a typical anti-harassment training. It’s entirely another to be faced with a situation in real life,” says Morgan Mercer, founder of Vantage Point, a startup developing comprehensive, multi-step, anti-harassment training programs experienced in virtual reality. “It’s called ‘state-dependent learning.’”

While you might assume you can revert to and remember your training, that doesn’t always happen, Mercer explains. “In the moment, the stress, the pressure, the emotional stimuli — the ‘Oh, my God, what’s happening? What do I do? How do I react? What if? What now?’ reactions flooding your brain are going to completely override any of the ‘traditional’ training or learning you may have done,” she says.

Bystander intervention training doesn’t have to incorporate virtual reality to be effective. Participants can instead learn and practice simple language they can use to call out colleagues if they witness microaggressions or harassment, Polefrone says.

“We emphasize that if you see something happening, say something. Stand up for someone else,” Polefrone says. “It’s not as difficult as it seems — but we do practice giving people simple language to use: one of our favorites is, ‘Hey, remember, this is a respectful workplace, okay?’”

Be willing to take drastic measures

Finally, executives and managers must be empowered to take action, says Bonnie Crater, president and CEO of Full Circle Insights.

“The way we define harassment here is ‘feeling uncomfortable.’ We don’t tolerate that; our employees know from day one that they are free to report any behavior that violates that to HR, and that it will be handled,” Crater says.

Crater and her executive team know that’s a broad definition, and that’s why they’ve adopted it as a standard.

“We have a very high standard set for our employees. We all have a broad definition of harassment, but that way we guarantee we’re standing up for everyone who works for and with us, and we won’t hesitate to take action,” she says. “I don’t understand why, in so many companies, this is so hard to understand. The only reason it’s complicated is if you choose to make it so because you’re afraid of bad publicity, or losing money, or something else — and let me tell you: There’s no amount of money, no amount of positive attributes would be worth tolerating that behavior.”

That uncompromising stance has become the cultural norm, Crater says, and it’s helped with recruiting and retention. “People know that we’re open, we’re honest, we’re a safe place to work. We’re not going to put up with some of the behavior they’ve had to deal with at other companies in Silicon Valley, and that’s a great thing for us and for talent,” she says.

When it comes to creating and sustaining a respectful workplace, HR must be empowered to enforce the cultural norms that make your organization a great place to work.

“HR, legal and the executive team all must come together to make sure your workplace culture is built on a foundation of respect,” Polefrone says. “They are the ones making the decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable, and answering the hard questions. HR, at our best, is going to force the organization to understand that you can’t just keep a harasser, an offender, even though they may be a rainmaker.”

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