We’ve all been reading the headlines. There’s never been a more important time to talk about harassment & discrimination in the workplace. Suzi Alligood, VP of People Development and Culture at Xenium, joins us to take the topic head-on. We’ll cover the changes she’s seen in the workplace and what employers and employees have to say about it. We’ll also cover the best tactics for preventing workplace harassment and ensuring a healthy work environment.
Top Tips for Employers – Harassment Prevention
1) Have a current zero tolerance policy for workplace harassment and retaliation that is communicated with all employees during onboarding and reviewed annually to ensure it reflects the latest employment protections. Specifically include information on how to recognize harassment and multiple options for reporting concerns.
2) Provide training to both employees and supervisors upon hire and every 1-2 years thereafter. Don’t wait for a complaint before you provide training! Supervisors need specific training around their responsibilities and should receive training immediately upon hire or promotion. A combination of e-learning and instructor-led workshops is best.
3) Lead with your core values by clarifying workplace expectations for professional and value-based communication. Ideally, this should be common language within your organization. Reinforce value-based behavior through your hiring, recognition and performance management processes.
Brandon Laws: I got my partner in crime, Suzi Alligood here. Suzi, what’s up? You’ve been doing a lot of harassment training lately.
Suzi Alligood: Yes, I’ve been very busy. I’ve probably done more harassment training this year so far than I’ve done in the last few years.
Brandon: Yeah. It’s obviously a heightened topic. So for those listeners who haven’t caught some of Suzi’s podcasts, Suzi is the Vice President of People Development and Culture at Xenium and lately she has been doing a ton of training.
Harassment has been in the news quite a bit. So we’re going to focus today on the top three practices for preventing workplace harassment, and I invited Suzi on the podcast to talk about some of the things that are going on. So let’s first talk about how has the workplace climate changed as a result of all the harassment claims coming up?
Media has obviously shined the brightest light on Hollywood, and this is in the news all the time. We’re getting a lot of requests for harassment training. And it’s on the minds of people. What has changed?
Suzi: Yes. Well, certainly as you said, there’s more awareness and there have been some unfortunate situations for organizations that have been brought to light.
So employers are definitely more aware and concerned about whether or not there may be some potential or real harassment going on in their organization.
So they’re approaching it a couple different ways. We have some employers who just automatically have had a regular process of providing this type of training. And then we have some employers, now especially, who are concerned that hey, I don’t want to be surprised at some point or be in a reactive position if there’s something going on.
If I can get ahead of it by educating my employees, and certainly my supervisors, to be able to recognize and respond appropriately to instances of harassment, then I’m going to feel more in control and in better position.
Then we also have a fair number of clients that come to us who have had recent complaints. So there has probably been a little bit of an uptick in complaints. But not as much as one might expect.
Brandon: So there are probably more of them or just scared that something could happen and they want to sort of proactively handle that. Is that most of what you’re getting?
Suzi: Yes. I would say that’s the majority of the requests that we get. Employers are thinking, “OK, I need to really be clear with employees about where we stand on this issue and make sure that they know what our process is for addressing any concerns.” Yeah, and taking steps to create a culture where all people feel included and no one is feeling singled out or targeted in any way.
Brandon: Go back real quick to why this has become an issue in the first place. Has this always been there? Is there just a light being shined on this thing or is it all of a sudden, now there’s just a lot of issues coming up? Has this always been there?
Suzi: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I can effectively answer that question.
Brandon: Just your opinion.
Suzi: I don’t know if I have enough research or data to support that.
Brandon: I think the issues were probably always there. Just people never felt comfortable coming –
Suzi: Yeah, I think that’s safe to say. When there’s more information out there, it increases awareness for people.
Brandon: More of a reason to do training and regular, ongoing awareness around this subject. So people feel comfortable going directly to the people that are maybe causing this or their managers or – would you say?
Suzi: Yeah, and there’s always this issue or fear around retaliation that inhibits people from bringing their concerns forward and unfortunately, I don’t know that that’s ever going to go away.
Employers can do their best to provide multiple options for people to report their concerns and reassure employees that they will not tolerate retaliation. It is unlawful, just as harassment is. And make sure that they investigate and hold anybody accountable through corrective action if there is retaliation.
But there’s no real good outcome, unfortunately, that comes out of a harassment situation. So even if there is someone who’s a victim and they bring a complaint forward and it’s substantiated and the employer takes corrective action or even terminates the offender, it’s still not a positive experience for the person who is affected and even other colleagues or coworkers in the organization.
Brandon: When a complaint is made – it sounds like you’ve probably dealt with some on the client side. But in general, what would you advise people when they’re coming to you saying, “I just got this complaint. I don’t even know what to do at this point”? What’s kind of the first action that employers should probably be taking when they have a complaint of some sort?
Suzi: Yes. So they need to take, especially now, everything very seriously.
Suzi: So I always tell supervisors in training, if an employee is expressing a concern to you, if they’re saying that they feel like they’re working in a hostile work environment or they’re complaining about another coworker who they feel is harassing them in some way, they need to take it seriously and be very objective in their response, even if – maybe in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, “OK, this doesn’t really sound like harassment.” They need to let the human resource department and the company go through the process of getting all the facts around the situation and documenting those and really making sure that they’re able to substantiate whether or not there was harassment.
Brandon: Before we started recording, I had asked you this question. Just out of curiosity really, I just – I kind of felt like – especially with the media putting so much emphasis on this and heightened sensitivities around it, I felt like people are automatically guilty before proven innocent, which is sort of the opposite in terms of the legal process.
But you brought up something that was interesting. You said, “Well, it impacts their brand.” Talk about that because I think that does make sense. As an employer, if you have a complaint, that’s going to impact you regardless. Whether it’s true or whether it’s not, you need to go through the fact-finding process. But either way, it’s going to impact the brand.
Suzi: Yeah, it can.
Brandon: And the culture really.
Suzi: Sure. Employers need to do their best to keep investigations and complaints confidential, right? But we know we can’t control that 100 percent. Employees have the right to talk with each other and that just happens often.
So if you’re a high profile employer or organization and you have a significant complaint or if you have multiple complaints, then yeah, there’s really no way to get around having the perception out there that something is not right with that culture.
So really, the only thing you can do – I kind of compare this to negative Glassdoor reviews.
The only thing you can do is to continue focusing on doing the right things. And really, the company leaders need to be out in front of the employees, communicating that, look, this is not OK. We are addressing these concerns. We’re following the letter and the spirit of the law and we are committed to our people and our culture and because of that, we’re going to be providing some extra training and coaching and support for people, so that people can feel confident in that and safe in this workplace.
Brandon: When you think about the side that we really tend to help on, which is the proactive side of dealing with these sort of issues, what are some of those top things that employers could probably do to just make sure that downstream they’re not going to have as many issues come up?
You can’t outright prevent this. But I think, to your point, there are things you can do within your culture and education to help fight these things.
Suzi: Absolutely. So one thing I want to bring up before I give you my top three tips is one of the things that I’ve noticed, that I found interesting recently, is that employees, after I’ve done harassment prevention training – I call it “respect in the workplace” or “commitment to a respectful workplace” – I’ve had employees for the first time in many years come up to me after the session and thank me for doing the training. It’s a little bit –
Brandon: Well, that’s interesting.
Suzi: It’s funny to me because in years past, people are required to attend a mandatory harassment training. They sit there. They endure it, you know. I don’t know that I’ve gotten that much better or more entertaining necessarily, but I think employees are appreciating the fact that their employer is again committed to providing this safe and respectful workplace and they recognize that there are differences in terms of backgrounds and perspectives and beliefs.
There’s diversity in organizations and we want to make sure that everybody feels included and has a sense of belonging and that they’re not going to tolerate any disrespectful or unlawful conduct.
So I think it’s refreshing actually that employees are actually expressing some appreciation around that training. So that kind of segues into one of the things that employers can do is to provide that training to not only the supervisors, which is really important, but to all employees around –
Brandon: Getting everybody in the same room.
Suzi: Yeah, get everybody in the same room. People need tools and coaching around how to have conversations with each other. That is one of the single biggest challenges in an organization — that feedback is not normalized. It’s this thing that’s uncomfortable, scary and so we avoid it.
So what happens is when people are interacting and someone might say something, maybe it’s a little off-color or offensive to another employee, employees aren’t comfortable with directly addressing that.
So they just let it stew because they’re not thinking it’s serious enough to go to HR about. So they just let it go and what that does is that creates more disconnect and misunderstanding between people and the best practice would be for that person to just approach that person.
Suzi: You know, the individual and in a very non-emotional, respectful way, say, “Hey, when you made that comment, here was the impact to me,” or “Here’s how I felt and why. I’m assuming that you have good intentions and you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings or be offensive. But I wanted to make you aware and let you know directly and ask if you would be willing to not make those types of comments around me in the future.”
People think, “Oh, yeah, that sounds great.” But it takes some training and practice for people to get comfortable with having those conversations. And I always ask in trainings. I say, “OK, folks. If you said something to someone that they found offensive, would you rather, one, have that person go right to HR; two, have that person go to your supervisor and request that your supervisor talk to you; or three, have them come to you directly and let you know?”
Everybody always says, “Well, number three.”
Brandon: Duh! Have a direct conversation. I don’t want other people involved.
Suzi: Yeah, we all agree. OK? That’s the best way to approach it. But giving employees tools and letting them practice in a safe environment and getting some coaching and feedback on how to have those conversations is important.
So the second thing is employers need to lead with their values, right? So if employers have clearly stated values –
Brandon: You’re talking about the organization’s values, right?
Suzi: Exactly, your core values. So whether it’s accountability, diversity, respect for others or the community, whatever it is, it should be unique to the organization. They need to make sure that they are articulating behaviors and communicating those as expectations, workplace expectations for behavior.
So you have a policy around harassment, but you also have workplace expectations for professional communication and how you act consistent with our values.
So how someone does their job and how they interact with others and their team is just as important as what they do. So really being clear about what those expectations are, reminding employees of them, making sure you’re incorporating those value-based behaviors in your hiring process, in your recognition programs and certainly your performance management process.
Brandon: You’re really talking about embedding all this in the culture and just making it part of it. This is how you prevent the stuff downstream.
Suzi: It’s the – yes, it’s the culture work. It’s the proactive stuff that if people are recognized and rewarded for demonstrating value behaviors and if they’re provided coaching and supportive feedback when they’re not demonstrating those values, that’s how you shift your culture.
There are fewer chances for people to get into situations of unproductive conflict and even harassment.
Brandon: You and I were talking for half an hour before we started recording about this and you brought up such a good point. If you could have a direct conversation with somebody and nip this thing in the bud before it ever became an issue, because most people are not trying to go out and harass people or discriminate; generally, right? But there’s probably a few that …
Brandon: … are probably going out of their way to do it.
Brandon: So for the majority, a direct conversation with that person, feedback, could have solved it.
Suzi: Right. If that person, if it’s presented in a way that doesn’t put the receiver on the defensive, then hopefully the receiver takes some responsibility, apologizes and agrees not to do that again and you move on.
Really the act of acknowledging and apologizing actually fosters trust between those individuals anyway. So yes, back to your point about there are exceptions. Certainly, if there are people who are in positions of power, who are abusing that power, then those instances, they need to be nipped in the bud quickly, right? And seriously after investigation.
So when you have a situation where an employee feels that their employment is impacted negatively because they’re being targeted based on their protected class or maybe it’s sexual harassment-related, that’s what I think many employers are afraid of because the fear of retaliation prevents the employee from speaking up and certainly because of the power differential, they’re not comfortable having that direct conversation.
Brandon: It makes sense, yeah.
Suzi: With their supervisors. So that’s what scares employers the most and really the only thing that you can do to prevent that is to have some real clear accountabilities for your supervisors and leaders.
Make sure that you’re getting some feedback, even anonymous and engagement or pulse surveys, making sure that you’re observing how they’re communicating with their team, that there are objective processes for any employment decisions.
So HR is partnering with managers to make sure that hey, if someone’s pay has changed or they’re promoted or terminated, that there’s some evaluation to ensure that there’s consistency and no bias.
Brandon: You’re bringing up some really good points about the power differential and why those issues have come up, because I’m sure the employee at the lower level probably doesn’t feel like anybody would advocate or they can’t have a direct conversation.
This is a stupid example, but it’s the one that’s so public right now. It’s like the Hollywood stuff. Harvey Weinstein, powerful guy in Hollywood. Actresses trying to make their next break, they feel like they have to stay silent because they want their career to progress and they feel like if they come out and get everybody involved in this harassment thing, then they would retaliated against. They’re not going to get that break. They’re not going to become a famous actress like they wanted. So what they do is stay silent. Now all this stuff comes up.
Brandon: This happens in the workplace all the time, right?
Suzi: It does, yeah, and I’ve talked to people in the workplace who told stories from years back that when they were in intern roles or they were starting out in their career and they were being mentored by a senior person, that they experienced some of those things, some more subtle.
Suzi: But they certainly didn’t feel like they were in a position to challenge or speak up and some of them even thought, well …
Brandon: That’s sad.
Suzi: … maybe this is what I need to do to advance.
Brandon: I get that.
Suzi: So the only way, like I said for employers to have a pulse of what’s going on, is to be connected with their supervisor or leaders’ practices and make sure that they’re providing this training.
Brandon: Obviously it goes to the training piece. But even before that, make sure to hire the right people that probably fit your culture, right?
Suzi: Absolutely, and that’s why I talk about leading with your values.
Brandon: Yeah, yeah.
Suzi: So if you’re really clear about what a culture fit looks like and you’re asking the right behavioral questions that will give you an indication as to whether or not someone shares your values and beliefs and has demonstrated that in the past, then you’re – yeah, you’re in a much better position.
Brandon: Before I derailed you, did you cover your three things?
Suzi: Yeah. So the third thing was having a clearly-worded policy that’s communicated at onboarding and also annually. So employees need to know how to recognize signs of harassment and really importantly, options for getting their concerns addressed. That’s something that – I ask people in trainings. OK. When was the last time you looked at your employee handbook or your harassment policy? And pretty much everybody is like, “Well, that was when I went through my new hire orientation.”
So this is something that employers need to pull out and, you can incorporate into your training, but at least review every year or every two years at minimum, so that employees are refreshed in its current clear information.
Brandon: Let’s wrap up. I want you to talk about why – just kind of big picture and you might have some bias in this because you do so much training — why is training so important? Why do employers need to do this? Then provide some options for training.
Because it’s not – especially with fragmented workplaces, it’s probably hard to get everybody in the room together. There has got to be some other options for making sure that people are getting trained every two years like you said.
Suzi: Yeah. So why is training important? We talked a little bit about that. But number one, it provides the employer with an affirmative defense. So if you’ve ever talked to an employment attorney, they will tell you this.
What that means is if you do get a claim, then you can show, you can demonstrate that hey, we’re a well-intentioned employer. We’ve done the right things by putting a policy out there, educating our employees on what harassment looks like, how to get their concerns addressed. That does help you in your defense.
But really more importantly, if you are investing in training, you’re showing your people that you care about them and the culture and you’re committed to operating under the letter and spirit of the law.
So that’s really what we hope employers lead with. In terms of training options, what we find that works the best is to have an instructor-led type workshop where people have the opportunity to engage in discussion and ask questions from a subject matter expert. And doing that at least once every two years.
If you’re a larger organization or you have a dynamic team, changing team, maybe once every year. Then using some web course options for onboarding and then certainly when new supervisors are promoted, getting them quickly up to speed on their responsibilities as it relates to preventing workplace harassment, having them take a web course until you have the opportunity to offer the next live training.
Brandon: Since you’ve been doing so much of this, what have you seen from our clients or just even those that aren’t our clients, that are asking us for solutions? Are they asking for the onsite training? Are they asking for a web course? Maybe a mixture of both. What have you seen?
Suzi: Yeah. We see both. So we have a number of clients who have incorporated an online course on harassment into their onboarding process. So anytime an employee or supervisor is hired, within 30 days, they have them take the harassment web course and a lot of them use ours.
Brandon: Yeah. I will put a link up to that by the way.
Suzi: Yeah, and it’s – if you’re not in a state like California that requires a minimum duration of training, ours is one hour that we have for employers outside of Oregon and it’s quick and engaging and employees and supervisors could get the information that they want and need.
Then employers are also – those same employers are also offering a live workshop. They’re bringing us in for either a supervisor and/or employee and supervisor session once a year and some of them, like I said, every two years.
Suzi: Just to refresh everybody. Here’s the thing too. The laws are changing, right? So what has happened politically and socially in our world has triggered changes in employment law. So employees, and surely supervisors, need to be up to speed.
We have new employment protections now that we didn’t have a couple of years ago. So certainly employers need to be educated on that.
Brandon: Agreed. Well, good stuff Suzi. I appreciate you jumping on the podcast to talk about this. For listeners, I wanted to mention that Suzi has got a new video series up now called “Transform Your Workplace”. I will put a link in the show notes for this. But go check that out because there are tips just like this and they’re in little bite-sized increments, like a minute and a half videos that she will provide you with awesome three key takeaways for whatever topic we’re talking about.
Suzi: Yeah, you’re welcome. If anybody has questions on this topic, I know that it’s confusing and troublesome and there’s a lot going on out there. If anybody has questions or would like some guidance, feel free to reach out to us and we can connect you to some information that may be helpful.
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