“The reality is that #MeToo was waiting to happen. Women’s anger and frustration had been a simmering pot, its lid jittering,” Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic. “Something was going to cause it to boil over soon enough. The anger was about harassment; the frustration was about the system that had been created to address it.”
In the article entitled “The Problem with HR,” Flangan contends that human resources departments are “no match for sexual harassment….We have to find a better way.”
As Flangan outlines, the need to address sexual harassment in the workplace extends far beyond the purview of HR. Organizations must proactively combat the issue before it becomes a problem, not just field complaints after the fact.
More than a company issue
Alexandria Chapman, an executive with ACV Enviro Corp., a New Jersey industrial waste management firm, told her HR department that she was groped and sexually harassed by her bosses during a night out. In a meeting the following day, an HR representative said that she “wasn’t surprised to hear her allegations,” according to The New York Post. Despite this and Chapman’s frequent check-ins with HR, the alleged perpetrators received “slaps on the wrist,” while Chapman faced backlash at work, where she had to continue to work with the men who she had accused of harassing her. Now, she is suing her employer.
The New Jersey case underscores the need for proper training for the prevention of sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination and is illegal according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The United States Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment in this way:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
The EEOC also notes that prevention is the most effective way of eliminating sexual harassment at work and urges employers to use methods such as providing sexual harassment training to their employees, having a system for handling complaints, and responding to complaints and taking immediate action when violations or potential violations occur.
The federal law and EEOC guidelines underscore the need for organizations to provide comprehensive sexual harassment training programs to employees.
When HR is the problem
HR is not a neutral party. Its primary concern is protecting the company, not necessarily protecting individual employees. In fact, HR personnel are part of the company they represent — and can be equally complicit in sexual harassment.
In Washington State, Bastian McKeen filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that while he was an intern at the Department of Social and Health Services, David Stewart, the Senior Director of Human Resources, sexually harassed him during a meeting.
What happens when HR is the problem? As is evidenced by the Washington case, the issue of sexual harassment cannot fall under the purview of a single department that has numerous other responsibilities, many of which are often prioritized over it — especially when HR can be the offending party in addition to other employees.
State laws concerning sexual harassment
Numerous states are overhauling their sexual harassment laws to emphasize the need for effective prevention training in the workplace. Some examples include:
- As of January 1, 2020, employers with five or more employees must offer at least one hour of sexual harassment training to non-managerial employees and two hours to managerial employees once every two years.
- Training must include practical examples.
- Training must be conducted by people with expertise in harassment prevention.
- All public employers and all private employers with 50+ employees must provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisors who work in Connecticut.
- Employers with more than 50 employees must provide sexual harassment training to all employees.
- Employers must give the training within a year of the beginning of employment and every two years afterwards.
- Employers with 15 or more employees must provide sexual harassment training to all new employees within a year of the beginning of their employment.
- Supervisors and managers must receive additional training within one year of beginning their role. This training will address their responsibility in handling sexual harassment complaints.
- All employers must provide sexual harassment training every year.
- Employers may either adopt the program provided by New York’s Labor and Human Rights Agencies or create a program that adheres to the same standards.
- New York City has additional requirements.
How to comply with federal and state laws
Sexual harassment is a complex topic, and the consequences for failing to comply with federal and state laws can be severe. Some employers, for example, have faced lawsuits for failing to provide adequate sexual harassment response and prevention training.
No matter how professional and responsive the department is, merely having HR handle complaints is not enough. In order to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, you need a thorough training program to ensure that your employees understand what sexual harassment encompasses, its nuances, the consequences for violating your policy, and more. Prevention is the most effective tool in combatting sexual harassment in the workplace, after all.
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About the Author
Ethics and compliance leader providing tools, education, and advisory services for global companies to inspire principled performance. LRN’s overall approach recognizes the inherent limitations of rules and regulations in influencing behaviors. In our view, focusing on actions that help build and maintain a values-based culture will mean more compliance and reduced costs as a result of tangible and sustainable behavioral change.More Content by LRN Corporation