If the EEOC called you today and said they were coming over to investigate how you handle complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence, how would you feel? Is sweat beading on your brow just thinking about it?
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education released a statement announcing federal investigations into whether 55 colleges and universities handled sexual violence and harassment complaints illegally or incorrectly. On top of the potential implications of poor reporting and the terrible public relations that result, this is particularly bad timing. In February, CNN profiled student and faculty activists from six schools in a report on how sexual violence complaints to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had almost tripled since 2009. Just last week the Obama Administration released new guidelines to combat sexual violence on campus, as well as an ad campaign featuring high-profiles celebrities. Vice President Biden issued statements to men, asking them to be part of the fight to end campus rape. Despite the high pressure atmosphere, six of the 55 colleges responded in a manner that made them appear cool, calm, and collected.
Reading their responses made me think of how corporate America might respond to a similar investigation, or, ideally, prevent one in the first place. On the one hand, I totally understand the head-in-the-sand attitude. It’s 2014, and the fact that we’re still dealing with sexual harassment is astonishing to me, and I can see how tempting it may be to ignore it. However, the fact is, it does happen, and it’s your duty to protect your business and your employees as best as you can.
Sexual harassment training often jumps out as the most critical step of an effective harassment and discrimination program, but without the critical elements of up-to-date, well-managed policies, and a reporting system, even the best business ethics training won’t be as successful and effective as it should be. Make sure you’re completing every step of the CONSENT system to make sure that you have an end-to-end sexual harassment awareness, prevention, reporting, and incident management system.
C – Current Status: Are Your Policies in Place and Well-Managed?
To know where you need to go, you need to know where you’re at now. Do you know where your sexual harassment policy is and if all of your employees have attested to it? Do you know which version they attested to? Do you get automated reminders to review your policy and ensure employees attest to the new version? The goal is for as much of the process to be automated as possible, leaving as little room for error as possible, and freeing up your time to focus on your higher value-added tasks.
O – Onboarding Process: Do All of Your Employees Go Through Sexual Harassment Training?
Now that your policies are up-to-date and well-managed, how are your employees trained on them? Sexual harassment training is a delicate topic, in that it’s both an uncomfortable topic and also one that most people feel they’ve been trained to death on. This makes it an easy avenue for boring and cliché training that employees tune out. The most effective sexual harassment training is modern and has an appropriate level of levity (read: not a snoozefest, but not kitschy), and is delivered in an interactive, memorable manner. See this post for an example. Keep in mind that training isn’t just a one-time issue either. AB 1825 training needs to be completed every two years, so your system needs to alert you when it’s time.
N – Next Steps: Do Employees Know How to Report Complaints?
Make sure your training and policies focus not just on what constitutes sexual harassment, but the very critical element of specifically how to report incidents within your organization. It may make employees feel more at ease if the training incorporates an overview of what will happen during the reporting process and what kind of follow-up will occur, and will encourage employees to report when they recognize this kind of misconduct. Consider the case of Joanna Espinosa: “Espinosa says she would not have come forward without the help of a nationwide network that has been a driving force in bringing attention to the way schools handle sexual misconduct reports.” Third-party reporting can give your employees the peace of mind they need to step forward.
S – Swift, Thorough Investigation of Incidents
How effective is your incident management system? A system that allows investigation notes to be tied not just to the initial incident report, but also to the individuals and locations involved will allow you to connect-the-dots and track behavior patterns. How long does your average investigation last? You should be able to track the report from the initial intake, whether from a hotline or web tool to resolution. This will allow you to remove inefficiencies, speed up the process, and improve the employee experience.
E – Employee Experience: Is Reporting a Positive Experience?
The employee’s experience during the reporting process is the most critical portion of your sexual harassment management system. No amount of sexual harassment training can overcome a poor experience. One poor experience and you can expect that employee to share that experience with other employees, which essentially makes your reporting system useless, which makes you blind as to what’s happening in your organization. Also, in today’s social media landscape, employees have many opportunities to anonymously report your poor incident management to third parties or to the general public – which is exactly what you want to avoid. Make sure that your hotline or other anonymous reporting tools are managed by professional interviewers, that callers know how to anonymously follow-up, and that the incident is handled in a timely manner.
N – Notify Employees and Notate the Process
Transparency around your sexual harassment prevention efforts will go a long way towards making your organization a great place to work. Keep employees in the loop as you update policies, business ethics training, and systems, and hear their feedback. If you have access to a reporting and analytics tool as part of your GRC suite, you’ll be able to take note of the number of incidents being reported, map them to potentially confusing policies or missing training, and continuously improve your system. This will also make it easy to track your AB 1825 training compliance, whether you’re tracking by individual employee or training year.
T – Zero Tolerance
Continuously improving your sexual harassment training, policies, and reporting are a great first step to making it clear that your workplace is a zero-tolerance environment. This ties us back to the first step: consistently revisiting policies and trainings to make sure they’re not outdated or confusing. Consider investing in a GRC solution that alerts you to changes in regulation that affect specific policies. However, also make sure that your entire organization is involved in building a culture that’s conducive to ethical behavior. Culture can have just as much of an effect on behavior as policy, if not more so. An ethical culture makes employees feel comfortable reporting problems.
Following this process will allow you protect your business and your employees before, during, and after an investigation. Remember: the best time to change your process and policies is NOW, before there’s a problem.