Using HR Tech to Combat Workplace Sexual Harassment



In this guest column, Saba Software’s Chief People Officer Debbie Shotwell shows how fighting sexual harassment is less about compliance and more about human health, safety and dignity.

Without a doubt, recent conversations with fellow HR leaders on the important and welcome focus on sexual harassment in the workplace have been frank and sobering. There’s a heaviness to even the most positive conversations about the role of HR in promoting a dignified work environment for every colleague. But I fear we are missing out on a more nuanced view on the topic of HR’s role in preventing sexual harassment.

Here’s the thing: we can talk around and around this subject, but the truth is, the way we currently “handle” sexual harassment is not working. We put the burden of reporting and dealing with sexual harassment on the victims. Our organizations follow this rule to a “T”— and we don’t do anything until someone has the courage to come forward.

The Problem: It’s Not What You Think

Saba Software's Debbie Shotwell
Saba Software’s
Debbie Shotwell

We now know that sexual harassment is a culture issue. Instead of being about sex, the issue is one of power. This is a moment in history for HR to lead the charge in effectively pointing out and addressing the underlying issues of inequality and culture. It’s past time to be proactive and create change!

We all have policies, handbooks and training courses to help us (hopefully) sidestep and dodge sexual harassment behaviors. But this isn’t a compliance issue, and a sexually hostile workplace just won’t disappear. Without taking a proactive approach, all the policies, investigations and mandatory training won’t change our workplace culture.

Where We are and Where We Need to Go

You may be a victim of sexual harassment on the job or elsewhere. If you haven’t experienced this, you are currently sitting near, or working with, someone who has experienced workplace sexual harassment at some point during their lives.

  • 38 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 77 men are raped at some point during their lives
  • 50 percent of rape victims lose their job because of the severity of their reaction

Source: National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Perpetrators don’t see themselves as the problem. Research shows us that people who abuse other people in personal relationships or at work feel as if the victim induced them to act in certain ways.

As HR professionals, we know these things are true: People matter. Our employees want to work for organizations that care about them as well as making profits. Employees want to do meaningful work and make a difference. People long to be themselves and work, and they need organizations to understand that the rest of their lives away from the office are just as important and sometimes more important.

But here’s the thing: None of these ideals are possible where sexual harassment is present.

Finally, Some Good News

It’s not all doom and gloom, although it sometimes seems the problem of workplace harassment is intractable and no one department or team can make a dent. But the good news is that your organization’s approach to talent management, and some of the tools you may already have at your disposal can help. Here are five ways talent management can be used to support a harassment-free work culture.

1. Look at Your Trouble Metrics

Data can tell powerful stories if it’s used correctly. Dig into your data and then move proactively. Use your HR platforms to examine these important markers.

  • Known sexual harassment claims: Where do they come from? Are there patterns based on a particular manager, department or division? If so, it’s time to look more closely and figure out what’s going on.
  • Turnover/attrition: People who are being harassed often leave to get away from the harasser. They are also fired for performance issues that may have arisen because of the harassment. Look at both voluntary and involuntary turnover by department/manager to see if there are areas with higher than normal attrition.
  • Absences rates: People who are being harassed don’t enjoy coming to work and are likely to be sick or depressed more than normal. Which departments have higher absence rates and are there any departments that have experienced changes in the past several months—either increased or decreased? If there has been a dramatic decrease in absences, look at that, too. Is it because a manager left or was fired?
  • Gender: Sexual harassment is about power and a form of gender discrimination. So, look at the gender makeup of teams, departments and divisions. Then review the gender of managers within those divisions. In predominantly male departments who are managed by males, the conditions exist for women to have a harder time simply because men are and have been in charge.
  • Promotion rates: Who gets promoted, who decides and how fast do men versus women rise in the organization? This will tell you about power, gender equality and potential bias in decision-making and distribution of authority. Again, look at the data by division, department, manager and teams.
  • Pay equity: Is there pay equity at the organization? If not, then it needs to be addressed to avoid equal pay and gender discrimination claims. But this data can also tell you a lot about how resources are valued, who controls them and who receives them. Both men and women support families and are primary “breadwinners.” Yet, our culture continues to assume that men work because they need to, and women work because they choose to. It’s simply not true. And it doesn’t matter. The law requires organizations to pay people the same wages for the same work regardless of their gender or marital/family status.
  • Engagement scores: Firm-wide engagement scores may be okay, or even good. But it may be time to look at the scores by department or manager. Consider comparing scores by gender, race or position in the organizational hierarchy. If the scores are significantly lower in one of these areas, it’s time to dig deeper to see what is going on there.

2. Use Pulse Surveys

Pulse surveys can be used as excellent “big tent” discussion points. You don’t want to ask, “Are you being sexually harassed?” But you can invite employees to let the organization know how they feel about their work relationships, company-wide initiatives and other important topics surrounding satisfaction and engagement on the job. Make sure to emphasize the confidentiality and anonymity of pulse surveys.

Some good questions for a pulse survey could include:

  • Do you feel like you can be yourself at work?
  • Do you feel comfortable in your working relationships with others?
  • Do you feel respected at work?

Follow-up questions: If you received any “No’s” to the above questions, then follow up with some more specific questions for those groups, such as:

  • Have you observed behavior at work that made you uncomfortable?
  • Have you experienced behavior at work that made you uncomfortable?

3. Talk to People

Once you’ve done some pulse surveys and drilled down into your trouble metrics, now is the time to talk to people face to face. These follow ups should emphasize confidentiality with an assurance of no retaliation following the conversation. The reality is, 75 percent of employees who speak out against workplace mistreatment experience some form of retaliation, so fear of that needs to be 100 percent removed.

4. Look at Power

At 15, my first job was at a grocery store where I quickly realized something wasn’t right with the way one of the managers treated another employee. It was such a lopsided-situation, I couldn’t even imagine feeling comfortable escalating the issue. I just avoided taking shifts the manger was on.

The power dynamics in an organization can tell a tale if you look. Where are authority and resources concentrated? What are your power demographics by gender, race and age? You’re probably not going to be able to wave your magic wand and redistribute power just because this is the issue, but you can start to understand how it works and begin to change the conversation.

Look beyond policies and mandatory training and address the cultural issues that allow harassment to happen. If your workplace’s culture allows, sidesteps or worse, encourages, sexual harassment, leaders need to address the underlying issues of power and culture. Organizations need to stop waiting for victims to become brave enough to speak up. Instead, there is a need to take the responsibility for creating and maintaining harassment-free workplaces.

Tech tip: Use your learning platform to create shared resources such as a lightweight learning paths of user-curated content collections that could help shift mindsets.

5: Use performance management as an opportunity

Managers can use one-on-one meetings as an opportunity to ask people if they feel included and respected. This can also be a time to go deeper if managers feel they are not getting the entire story. It would be appropriate for a manager in this type of situation to ask in a one-on-one meeting, “Are you being harassed?”

Performance management tools can also help employees know their work is respected and valued. Make sure managers have the tools to help communicate the company’s core values and what is going well. If there are issues, promptly address them and hold people accountable.

Using talent management to proactively address sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t a risk management issue. It’s a health and safety issue! We have to create a culture where people can be themselves, get their work done and talk about the issues, and that means taking affirmative steps to prevent sexual harassment. Let’s stop waiting for problems to show up, and instead create a culture where sexual harassment never takes root.

As the chief people officer of Saba Software, Debbie Shotwell is responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee communications and community relations.

Feature Image Copyright: gar1984 / 123RF Stock Photo

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