Don't Be Blind to Workplace Harassment: 5 Tough Questions to Ask
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Combating workplace harassment isn’t as simple as setting a policy and keeping your door open to employee complaints. It’s something you need to stay vigilant about all the time, and if you’re a fast-growing startup, it will be even harder to keep a pulse on how everyone’s doing.
Even if you don't think sexual harassment is a problem at your company, you need to ask yourself tough questions because it's easy to have a blind spot around such a sensitive issue, especially when victims hesitate to come forward.
Here are a few of the questions you should regularly revisit to ensure you’re not missing the signals.
1. Do people avoid certain employees?
There are lots of reasons people ask to be moved to another team, such as an incompetent manager, a personality clash or a desire to work on something new. With such obvious explanations, you might not even consider the possibility of harassment.
For example, even though senior management thinks the world of “Joe” and sees him as a key contributor, another reliable worker has asked to be taken off his team, and she isn’t the first. Despite his many talents, you conclude Joe must rub people the wrong way, so you decide to work with him on developing his communication skills and train him on giving feedback.
But, what if the problem is deeper than deficient soft skills? Before making that assumption, managers and HR must do their due diligence to ensure they’re not missing the real story.
2. Are your events inclusive and welcoming?
Tech industry conferences, in particular, have drawn fire for continuing to trot out “booth babes” and turning a blind eye to rampant misogyny and threats directed toward women (Gamergate being the best-known example). Internal company events may be just as problematic as those open to the public, and startups with lots of young employees should be extra-careful about their party cultures.
One of my previous companies liked to play beer pong at its gatherings, which reminded some of an exclusionary, college fraternity culture considered unwelcoming to many women and people of color. Yet, there was an unspoken message that non-participation was viewed as lack of commitment to the team.
Listen closely to feedback on company events and don’t dismiss detractors as party-poopers. Look at who’s organizing these activities and whether they’re representative of your entire workforce. Ask yourself if you’d have any concerns with a hard-charging journalist (say, Kara Swisher) attending and writing about the event. Is this what you want your company known for?
3. Are there team dynamics that make new hires feel like they don’t belong?
In their early days, small startup teams can spend practically all of their waking hours together. Such intense conditions create the deep and lasting bonds startups need to push through adversity and reach ambitious goals. They also create social cliques.
Successful startups grow and hire fast. You want to make sure newbies feel as connected to your culture as those who’ve toiled from the beginning. But, what happens when longtimers share inside jokes that could be taken as offensive to the uninitiated? Or when newer employees don’t have the backstory on a beloved tradition that seems off-color or exclusionary?
These situations are hard to identify because even managers may not see a problem if they’re in on the jokes. New employees don’t want to be perceived as killjoys, so they might not speak up.
Onboarding a new teammate is a great time to reexamine comments and behaviors and ask whether they might be contributing to a hostile workplace. With unconscious bias, we may not be aware of how our “normal” actions can be microaggressions to others.
4. Do you really stand behind your zero-tolerance policy, regardless of who’s involved?
Every responsible company wants to root out harassment and other toxic workplace behaviors. They want to do the right thing by their employees. I doubt you’d find an HR person anywhere who’d admit to anything less than zero tolerance for office harassers. And yet it persists.
Harassing behaviors continue when victims don’t feel comfortable coming forward to share their experience or when companies fail to take action. When companies don’t take complaints seriously and hold people accountable, victims become even less likely to speak up, as we saw at Uber. This further empowers harassers, who believe they can act with impunity.
Do you investigate every harassment claim thoroughly and stick to a zero-tolerance standard even when it involves a “star” performer?
5. Are your reference checks as thorough as they could be?
We recently saw the quick exit of a newly hired Uber executive after it came to light he’d been accused of harassment during his time at Google. Apparently, the executive’s reputation was well-known around Google and wouldn’t have been hard for Uber to uncover, if it had bothered to look.
Reference checks won’t catch every bad actor who interviews at your company, but the above example shows how you may be able to sift out the most egregious cases with a bit more effort. It makes sense that an effective way to eliminate harassment in your office is not to bring on past offenders in the first place.
If you think your office is a safe place where people always treat each other fairly, equally and appropriately, don’t get too smug. Harassment takes many insidious forms and isn’t always obvious, even to close teammates. Leaders, managers and HR all need to work together to be on the lookout for trouble and address it before it makes headlines.