The Way We Work

What Employees, Employers and Job Hunters Should Look for When It Comes to Workplace Harassment Policies

Recent data reveal where companies still have room for improvement in making their policies and processes known and effective.
What Employees, Employers and Job Hunters Should Look for When It Comes to Workplace Harassment Policies
Image credit: Antonio_Diaz | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
7 min read

Editor’s Note: In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.

Several trends are converging, making it more important than ever for business leaders to establish policies to make their workplaces safer and more hospitable.

One is the proliferation of social media and online review sites, which make it easier for job candidates to have a clearer sense of what it’s like to work at a company as early as the recruitment stage. Another is generational, in the fact that people ages 18 to 35, on average, are less likely to silently endure mistreatment, bullying or harassment.

“They’re so vocal, and they're willing to walk,” says Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at recruiting software company Jobvite.

The #MeToo movement is the ultimate manifestation of this shift, but the data bear it out as well. Jobvite recently partnered with Zogby Analytics to conduct an extensive survey about harassment and bullying at work. Overall, 9 percent of American workers reported having experienced sexual harassment at work in the past two years, while 67 percent of that group reported the incidents to their HR departments.

Related: When It Comes to Harassment, Workplace Silence Doesn't Mean Everything Is OK

Companies have work to do to foster cultures in which sexual harassment doesn’t happen to begin with. But, if and when an incident occurs, employees should know they have recourse, that there’s a policy and a process for handling the situation.

Bitte outlines these three elements as “define,” “educate” and “address.” It’s important to have all of this information accessible and transparent not only for current employees, but job candidates as well, she says.

As the Jobvite report highlights, 27 percent of job seekers would not know how to report a case of sexual harassment to their current or most recent employer. That said, 63 percent “consider it important to know about the sexual harassment policy of a company they are considering joining,” according to the report. They seek out this method in multiple ways, the most common being doing online research, following by asking the hiring manager outright.

Bitte, who previously worked as an HR manager and recruiter at Apple and the HR director at Intuit, shares what companies, employees and job seekers alike should keep in mind when clarifying their standards for workplace conduct, in light of the data.

Fifteen percent of workers say their companies have changed their policies or made statements regarding sexual harassment recently.

What influences employees: Of the other 85 percent -- those whose companies haven’t acknowledged “recent movements” (i.e. #MeToo) -- 13 percent say this silence on the issue makes them more likely to leave their company. That’s 11 percent of the overall workforce who feels this way. While that’s nowhere near the majority, it still amounts to a significant number of people who consider it an issue.

What influences companies: “Everybody's going to make that call based upon their own culture and based upon what they think is most appropriate,” Bitte says of companies changing policies and making statements about sexual harassment.

For example, a The Way We Work column from earlier this year explored how two sexual health companies, Dame Products and Unbound, have responded internally to the #MeToo movement. Unbound now has a policy that employees should refrain from discussing personal sexual experiences at work, while Dame hasn’t made any changes amid #MeToo.

What influences job seekers: Bitte emphasizes that when companies take a stand, it’s most effective when messaging is both internal and external, given that company culture is such an integral part of what she calls “marketing recruitment” of new hires -- a trend that she’s seen emerge over this decade.

“Early on, a lot of folks in the recruiting space were trying to take what was the company PR and just tweak it for candidates,” Bitte says. “What they found was, because those candidates become your employees, there needs to be a level of transparency and authenticity.” She expands on how to offer that to candidates below.

Forty-eight percent of job seekers would be discouraged from applying to a company if they heard about a sexual harassment incident that occurred there.

How companies can educate: Employers need to be ready if and when job seekers ask about incidents that may have happened within the company.

Internally, define what constitutes appropriate behavior and a safe workplace for your company, she says, perhaps through an employee handbook, and externally, on your company website, for example. Define how you deal with behavior that doesn’t align as well. Also consider, Bitte says, that “people are different learners. Some people are audio learners, some people are visual learners, and so, do you have videos, do you have things written down?”

You have to not only make the materials available, but facilitate trainings, Bitte says. Externally, use as many channels as possible -- Instagram, LinkedIn, your company website, career sites your company appears on.

How candidates can learn: Bitte advises candidates to request an interview with a peer (within the same level or department they’d be joining), and to consider it a red flag if a company won’t arrange a meeting. This can give a candidate a clearer sense of the role (not to mention give the company a more candid or broader view of the candidate and the employee a say in the decision-making process). Beyond these benefits, it can also help the candidate understand what the culture is like.

Related: These Female Entrepreneurs Created a Fake Male Co-Founder to Work Around Sexism. How Well It Worked Is Incredibly Eye Opening.

In peer interviews, Bitte advises candidates to ask open-ended questions, given that the interviewer likely won’t come right out and say, “the boss is a chauvinist” or “it’s a total boys' club” or worse.

“Instead of saying, ‘Do you like it here or not?’,” Bitte says, “ask open-ended questions, such as, 'What brought you here?’ ‘Why have you stayed?’ ‘What are the things that maybe would drive you to not stay?'”

In terms of addressing incidences, 74 percent of people who have dealt with a harassment issue at work say their company took appropriate action.

How companies can prepare: It’s important to have “trusted channels,” as Bitte describes -- options for confidential reporting that prevent retaliation by the perpetrator. They should also think about balancing an employee’s reluctance to identify who’s been harassing them with the duty to confirm it, in cases where the perpetrator has demonstrated a pattern of behavior that needs addressing.

“Employees don't know the context of everything,” Bitte says, “but they are the eyes and ears of what's going on, too.”

All members of HR departments should be equipped to help address or elevate any case that comes forward, either within the organization or through a review site such as Glassdoor.

When companies can take a step back: HR departments also don’t always have to directly mediate cases, she says. Employees may approach HR for advice on how to deal harassment or bullying themselves, such as what to say in conversation with the person they’re in conflict with.

Of course, what constitutes harassment or bullying will never be clear cut, Bitte says. Part of the Jobvite survey broke down harassment by category and asked survey respondents to rate the appropriateness level of each. They rated “getting a touch on the shoulder” most benign and “viewing inappropriate material/images on a work computer” least.

“It's OK that it isn't perfectly defined, because humans are not all black and white in our way of thinking about behavior,” Bitte says. “Just try to raise awareness, and say, ‘If you don't like it, or you're not comfortable or it doesn't fit your definition of a safe workplace, just bring it forward.”

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