How Leaders Can Create an Open Dialogue About Sexual Harassment

#WorkTrends Recap: How Leaders Can Create an Open Dialogue About Sexual Harassment

Has the mood in your office changed since October 5, 2017?

You probably don’t remember the exact date like Jonathan Segal does, but I’m willing to bet your world has changed a little since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story broke.

That day “blew the top off any denial that harassment was a serious problem. We all know it’s a serious problem. Now there is no excuse for any organization to ignore it,” says Segal, my longtime friend, a prominent HR attorney and a member of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.

Talking about harassment is hard enough among friends, but in the workplace, it’s even more loaded. There are a lot of complicated dynamics to explore. I asked Segal for his take on how leaders can facilitate these tough conversations.

Rethink Training on Sexual Harassment

There’s been a lot of talk about whether training about sexual harassment is effective. Segal says that harassment training is just like anything else: quality matters. He shared his tips for building a truly effective training program:

  • Focus on the human element, not just legal compliance. “If you focus on, ‘This is what we need to do to stay out of court,’ then you devalue the human element,” he says. “This is about preventing harm.”
  • Train managers to be proactive. Managers should be on the lookout for any behavior potentially on the continuum of harassment, and respond proactively by reporting everything to HR.
  • Use clear language and practical examples. Training language can’t be canned legalese, he says. Don’t get lost in legal labels. “Sometimes, I see training and I don’t even know what it means — and I’m a lawyer. You have to be specific. A policy and training should make clear what behaviors are unacceptable, even if they’re not unlawful.” For example, using a sexist quote in the workplace probably isn’t unlawful, but it still warrants a response.
  • Customize the training based on your people’s needs and risks. Segal says that one of the key elements of an effective training is customization. “If it’s off the shelf, usually it’s going to be of minimal value.” He recommends pinpointing the unique risk factors in your organization: Do you have a younger workforce? Are individuals reliant on tips? Are people working at decentralized locations?

Not Sure What’s OK? Consider These 3 Factors

The whirlwind of allegations, legal cases and conversations about sexual harassment might make some people second-guess their previous behaviors. For example, is it okay to give a coworker a hug? Segal says you should consider three factors when you’re navigating an unclear situation:

  • Relationship
  • Context
  • Power

“If someone at a holiday party gives someone a hug and says, ‘Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,’ and it’s in front of other people, I think that’s socially acceptable. I wouldn’t say you can’t do that.” But, he says, walking into someone’s office and saying, “Hey, it’s time for your Friday hug” is different.

Another example: “If I were in a business meeting with five people and there were four men and you, even though we’re friends, I might think in that setting, ‘You know what? I’m gonna shake your hand,’” he says. “Then, afterwards I could say, ‘Now, as a friend, I’m going to give you a hug.’” But I might be thoughtful about the context.”

If you’re a hugger (like I am!), it might be time to rethink who you hug and when. Segal says it’s all about self-awareness. “Try to be thoughtful about the when, the where, the who — all those factors — because other people have different perspectives on it.”

Get Serious About Your Non-Retaliation Policy

Segal says that many employees who experience sexual harassment don’t ever speak up because they fear retaliation. He says we’ll never get to a point where people feel more comfortable coming forward unless there’s a non-retaliation policy that’s actually reflected in the culture. That means that people who stand up won’t face consequences in terms of assignments, promotions and even whether people will speak to them at work. “A critical part of getting people comfortable speaking up is making sure there’s no retaliation if they do,” he says.

Speak Up and Stand Up

“If you’re in leadership, there’s no such thing as being a passive bystander,” he says. “If you see or hear unacceptable conduct, and you’re a leader, and you ignore it, you are condoning it by your silence and you’re sending a powerful message. If we see it or hear it, even if a complaint isn’t made, we need to stand up.” Sometimes, that may mean standing up to people senior to you.

Don’t Completely Recede

Segal says he’s worried that men will completely back away from interacting with women professionally because they don’t want to accidentally offend anyone. But that approach can have unwanted, gendered consequences, as well. “If men withdraw from women, then they’d be giving men advantages through social interactions that women aren’t having. More social inclusion, the business trips, the mentoring. The strategy for avoiding harassment can’t be to avoid people of the opposite or same sex. It has to be avoiding the behaviors and being thoughtful about what you’re doing with people.”

Segal says he’s encouraged about the post-October 5 world we’re living in now. “I think we now know that what people may have accepted before, they won’t now. I think that’s a really good thing. When you think about harassing behavior along the continuum, it’s abusive. Abuse is often kept quiet, and it’s a secret. That’s part of why it continues.” So bringing these issues out into the open is good for everyone, he says.

“I was in line for coffee and I heard two people actually having a conversation: ‘You think it was okay that I said this?’ ‘Well, I’m not sure that I would have said that.’ I don’t know what the answer was, but I think it was great that they were having the conversation.”

Stay tuned for more inspiration on the #WorkTrends podcast, every Wednesday: