Sexual harassment in the #MeToo era: What's HR's role?

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This combination photo shows, top row from left, film producer Harvey Weinstein, former Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, director James Toback, New Orleans chef John Besh; bottom row from left, fashion photographer Terry Richardson, New Republic contributing editor Leon Wiseltier, former NBC News political commentator Mark Halperin, former Defy Media executive Andy Signore. In the weeks since the string of allegations against Weinstein first began, an ongoing domino effect tumbled through not just Hollywood but at least a dozen other industries.

The headlines may focus on the undoing of important men over allegations of sexual harassment, men in Hollywood, Congress, media outlets and other high-profile industries. But everyday workplaces also are grappling with implications of the #MeToo movement.

Employees are talking about the issue of sexual harassment in the office or on the shop floor, asking questions around what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not, and in some cases, feeling more comfortable to report concerns.

On the surface, that might seem like an HR headache to manage. Human resource and legal experts, however, call the national and local spotlight on sexual harassment an important moment — one that businesses should not ignore.

“I think that it creates opportunity,” said Linda Hollinshead, a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia who practices in employment law and does harassment prevention training. “The fact that we’re talking about it on a regular basis has to be a good thing, has to be a positive for workplaces and awareness.”

In the weeks since last October when the #MeToo hashtag went viral and a flood of boldface names, starting with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, faced allegations, Hollinshead has seen an uptick in calls from clients. Some want to update policies that haven’t been reviewed in a while; others want to move training — their #MeToo training, as some say —   that usually occurs later in the year to the first quarter.

“It’s more of a priority,” she said, adding Duane Morris recirculated its policies. Companies are saying that “we wanted to remind employees that we are thinking about it too.”

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that more than one-third of the 500-plus HR respondents to a January survey reported at least one employee had made a workplace sexual harassment allegation in the last year. Thirty-six percent of the group of nearly 200 HR professionals noted an increased in allegations. Out of that group of nearly 200 HR professionals, 36 percent noted an increase in allegations. The most commonly reported complaint is verbal harassment, including unwanted sexual advances, says the survey.

In addition, almost half of organizations either plan to make changes to their sexual harassment prevention training this year or already made changes last year. Common changes included adding workplace civility components (49 percent), tailoring training (47 percent) and incorporating information into employee orientation (46 percent).

“We’re seeing better HR policies, better enforcement and better training in the age of the #MeToo movement,” said Bettina Deynes, SHRM’s interim chief human resources officer and vice president of human resources and diversity. “The understanding is that sexual harassment is no longer acceptable and has to be eradicated from the workplace.”

Too often, she said, “training has been a check-the-box thing. But that’s not effective.”

Instead, experts advise employers to offer frequent programs that not only focus on awareness through specific scenarios but also make clear how to report concerns. Never exempt anybody, even executives. Make policies that cover a broad range of behavior — other types of harassment, as well as discrimination and retaliation, going beyond the narrow legal definitions.

Hollinshead, for one, cautions against zero-tolerance policies that overlook nuances. Sometimes a hug between a manager and team member is appropriate; other times, not.

“It’s easy to say, thou shalt not,” she said, “but it’s not realistic in some of these gray areas.”

At the nonprofit SPIN, based in Northeast Philadelphia, the current climate has provided an imperative to take a more proactive stance on the issue, said Adam Hymans, director of strategic communications for the provider of services to children and adults with autism and other disabilities in the Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley regions.

The group revised its policies to “empower employees to come forward,” according to Hymans. That includes a 24-hour hotline to report sexual harassment directly to the head of HR instead of through a supervisor. SPIN also has updated training for all employees on what they should expect from positive, professional relationships, he said.

“By discussing the shades of harassment, from inappropriate remarks to pervasive bullying and physical harassment, we give employees a language to understand and talk about their experiences,” Hymans said. The annual training also will be incorporated into on-boarding activities.

Why make these changes now? “When our employees feel safe, supported and empowered to do their best, the people we support can thrive,” he said. “The #MeToo movement provided us the perfect opportunity to refresh and revisit our policy.”

The Turnersville AutoMall held “reinforcement training around proper workplace behavior” for about 80 managers and supervisors in December “to re-energize focus and ensure everyone had the proper sensitivity to the issue,” said Ryan Sowell, area human resources manager for the business. It plans to repeat the program more often.

The SHRM research underlines the challenges companies face. Even though most workplaces (94 percent) have a sexual harassment policy — an important tool to prevent and address inappropriate behavior — a companion survey of non-management employees revealed that more than one in five of the 1,223 asked was not aware of it.

“Organizations need to make sure employees understand the policy,” Deynes said, “that they’re familiar with different types of harassment, not just sexual harassment, that they understand there is a confidential, non-retaliatory manner to bringing the situation forward to HR or leadership.”

Still some complaints appear to be going unreported. While 11 percent of non-management employees said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment last year, more than three-fourths did not report it. Why? In some cases, the victim feared retaliation or believed no action would be taken.

According to Deynes, policies on books and regular training are only first steps. “The organization really has to create a culture where people feel safe,” she said. “It really has to commit to enforcing those policies, that no one, the so called high-value or high-profile employee, is exempt, and really be very open about why this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

At MassMutual, Greater Philadelphia, sexual harassment policies and training, along with other HR issues, have gotten increased attention as a result of the Bala Cynwyd-based company’s rapid growth, said vice president of marketing Cynthia St. Pierre.

#MeToo has further increased awareness around how to behave in the workplace, she said, and that gives her a lot of hope, especially for her own 2-year-old daughter’s future.

“The conversations that I’m hearing in our offices are positive,” St. Pierre said. “That’s wonderful. They really generate more conversation and ideas and thoughts and interaction — and change.”