Why don’t organizations treat discrimination and harassment like they do workplace safety?
OSHA requires that employers provide a safe and healthy workplace. This means employers must take affirmative steps that equipment is safe to use, air and water are clean and that employees don’t encounter known safety or health hazards. Employers must be proactive, inspect conditions, test for dangers and make sure that everything is kept in good repair. They can’t just wait until someone loses their fingers in some heavy machinery before they act. OSHA states unequivocally “No one should have to be injured or killed for a paycheck.”
Employers also have a legal, ethical and practical obligation to provide employees with a work environment that is free of harassment and discrimination. In many ways, it’s a health and safety issue too. We know that sexual harassment causes depression, anxiety, PTSD, and can develop into other health issues as well.
We also know that most harassment claims are not reported for fear of retaliation and the stress of having to deal with it.
So, we need to take a different approach – to be more proactive, inspect conditions, test for danger and make sure that everything is kept in good repair.
Zero in on the issue
The first thing to do is look at your data. Look at your trouble metrics of turnover, absence rates, gender distribution by department/manager, promotion rates by gender, pay equity, engagement scores by demographics and department, survey response rates and where you have known harassment claims. When you find problems, dig further and go talk to people. Make it safe to discuss. And make it clear that preventing and addressing sexual harassment is a priority.
Next, use check-ins and pulse surveys to learn what’s going on. Find out if people are comfortable with others at work, if they can be themselves, and if they feel respected.
Educate and create change
Offer learning opportunities to explore issues of unconscious bias, gender and other forms of discrimination. Educate people on the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ways to improve both. Understand that the people who need this information most probably don’t think they do.
Teach people how to effectively intervene and speak up when they witness inappropriate conduct. Some programs offer sessions that give scenarios for groups to come up with strategies on what to say and do in response.
Stay focused on work issues and how to handle them and avoid casting blame and getting personal. Include everyone, not just managers. Harassment is a culture issue and in order to shift a culture, the rules have to change for everyone, from the temp to the CEO.
Then, make it okay for employees to stand up and object to what's going on when they see inappropriate or offensive conduct. A friend or colleague saying: ‘Hey, cut it out’ or ‘That’s not funny’ can be a powerful deterrent to further behavior. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it does have to become the norm, not the exception. So, encourage employees to help and protect each other. Then protect and defend the ones that do. This is not a checklist; it's a daily practice. Walk the talk.
Does this take a lot of work? Yes. But, so does maintaining and repairing a punch press. And if this seems like too much hassle, would you balk at providing clean air and water to employees?
Zero tolerance is table stakes
Last, and most importantly, when you uncover sexual harassment, no matter who it is, fire the harasser. You would never ask an employee to work on dangerous equipment that could hurt them. The same goes for people who act in illegal and damaging ways.
Organizations have an obligation to provide a harassment-free workplace. It will save you time, money, and some of your best employees in the long run. So, treat creating a harassment-free workplace as the essential part of work culture that it is.
Get started today
For a deeper dive on creating a safe and inclusive work culture, download my new eBook, “Why Sexual Harassment at Work Is a Culture Issue – And What to Do About It” created in partnership with Saba Software. Or, check out the previous posts in our blog series on creating harassment-free work cultures.