Using Talent Management To Create a Harassment-Free Culture

by Connie Costigan | Posted | Culture

Using Talent Management To Create a Harassment-Free Culture

This week Heather Bussing and I delivered a webinar with SHRM that focused on why sexual harassment is a culture issue and what HR can do about it through this lens. If you missed the webinar you can register or catch a replay here. Heather is a super smart employment lawyer and very bold HR thinker, which made exploring such an important topic with her incredibly meaningful.

I can't think of a better way to frame a discussion of sexual harassment than with this quote from Gruenter and Whitaker:

"The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate."

We know this is true. You've probably seen this time and again in your work experience. When it comes to the issue of sexual harassment, Heather was clear. We've tried treating it as a compliance and risk mitigation issue. We've had policies, investigations and mandatory training come down from courts and legislators. And of course, we act whenever we see wrongdoing.

While these things are all important, here's the problem: they put the burden of dealing with sexual harassment on the victims. Because of this, organizations don't tend to act until someone is brave enough to come forward.

The fact is, sexual harassment is a culture issue. It's not about sex, it's about power. And HR is uniquely situated to lead the charge in effectively identifying and addressing the underlying issues of power and culture. Organizations need to proactively create change.

As we shared in the webinar, your approach to talent management, and some of the tools you may already have at your disposal can help. Here are five ways talent management can be used to support a harassment-free work culture.

Look at your data and talk to people

Before you can start to shift mindsets about harassment, you need to know where it's happening. You already have high-level data like attrition complaints, absences and gender ratios. What other data can you gather by asking your people? The reality is, 75% of employees who speak out against workplace mistreatment experience some form of retaliation, so fear of that needs to be 100% removed. Anonymous pulse surveys are particularly useful here. Questions can be asked in a way that could reveal potential issues or hotspots without asking outright if people have been harassed. These example questions about how the individual feels about themselves, their leaders and the organization are a great starting point.


The information gleaned from these surveys can be valuable in narrowing your search for trouble areas and can give you a better look into whether your employees feel comfortable and safe at work.

Talking to your people should also include more individualized communication. Manager-employee check-ins or 1:1 meetings are great opportunities to make sure that employees feel respected and comfortable at work. In the example below, HR can help managers start this dialogue by pushing conversation starters, and managers can take these opportunities to dig deeper when they feel like they aren't getting the whole story. Not all employees will feel comfortable answering these questions, but simply asking them shows that management cares about a safe work environment and reflects those values back onto the organization. Below, you'll see an example of a manager entering an agenda item for an upcoming check-in meeting to discuss issues around feeling respected at work, and a conversation starter about behavior at work.


Educate about unconscious bias and harassment-related issues

One of the biggest challenges in creating a harassment-free culture is trying to build on an unfavorable foundation. That unfavorable foundation comes in the form of unconscious bias.

As Heather shared, many people and organizations unknowingly carry a bias that sees men (predominantly white) in more positions of power. They are given more promotions, greater seniority and higher pay.

Preventing sexual harassment at work isn't about legislation or punishment. It's about educating and creating a harassment-free organizational culture @ConnieCostigan
Tweet this

Although these biases are unconscious, we should be working towards breaking them down. The best way to do this is through education - both formal and informal. There are people your organization that care about this topic who probably have some great resources to share. You or your employees can create lightweight learning paths of user-curated content collections such as the one I've included below to share resources that can help shift mindsets.


At the same time, you can't ignore some of the must-have compliance oriented training as part of how you educate your employees and leaders on the issue.

Using the same learning platform below, you can see how pulling in sexual harassment training resources (in this case from our partner OpenSesame's catalog) you are creating a mix of formal and informal learning resources to educate your organization on the issues.


Look at power

As stated earlier, sexual harassment is about power.

That's why it's also important to identify patterns in who holds that power. Ask yourself these questions about your organization:

  • Where are authority and resources concentrated?
  • What are your power demographics by gender, race and age?
  • Who typically gets promoted to leadership?

Many organizations will find some revealing patterns when conducting an analysis like this one. By evening out the distribution of power based on gender, age and race, rates of harassment can be dramatically decreased.

This doesn't just apply to current leaders. It applies to your leaders of the future as well. Analyzing your leadership talent pools can show some revealing things about power trends within your organization. When looking at a typical 9-box succession grid, notice some things. Are those who have been identified as high-potential predominantly male? Is there solid representation across the entire grid, not just in the high-potential categories? In the below example, you'll also see which employees are eligible to be a part of the talent pool but are not included - another indicator to look at. Examining these things, and correcting them if necessary, can do a lot to balance the power dynamics in your organization.


Focus on inclusion

One element that is a must-have for a harassment-free work culture is inclusiveness. This can be fostered through education as we've discussed - train people to listen, help each other and understand that there are many right ways to do things besides their own. Your people should also be taught how to have healthy and constructive conflict.

But creating an inclusive culture extends beyond educating your people. There are many foundational elements that need addressing. During the webinar Heather recommended that Employee resource groups are another great way to foster an inclusive community and generate conversations around creating more positive work environments. Individuals can share articles, resources, observations and ideas that can help make your organization a more inclusive place.


Use performance management as an opportunity

Your approach to performance management to ensure a harassment-free culture is foundational. It's here that the building blocks of skills and competencies come into play, some of which should align with your cultural values.

The example below looks at a potential promotion or career path for greater responsibility. Consider that demonstrated level of competence in some critical cultural areas should be a prerequisite for anyone to progress in the company. This can be assessed through a regular performance process or coupled with 360 feedback for a broader perspective.

In this example, we used some samples from our skills and competencies library that reflect respect and inclusiveness. The point here is demonstrating to your employees and leaders that it's not just about the performance outcomes that get recognized, but it's also about how performance is achieved.


The bottom line is ensuring that everyone understands your organization won't tolerate brilliant jerks, harassers or anyone else of their kind.

These are just 5 ways you can help ensure that your culture is embodied throughout every facet of your approach to talent development. From assessing problem areas to educating your employees and managers, to giving them tools to self-organize and share resources, to how your competencies and performance principles are aligned with your values.

What to do next

Heather shared some great ideas on where to start, and the examples above are just a few ways to turn her guidance into action via your talent management processes and systems. We welcome more of your own ideas in the comments!

If you want a closer look at a Saba's approach to talent management and talent development, you can join us for an upcoming product tour on April 4th.

Sexual Harassment at Work: It\'s a Culture Issue

Learn how talent management can support a safer, more inclusive workplace.


Watch On-Demand
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Sexual Harassment at Work: It\'s a Culture Issue

Learn how talent management can support a safer, more inclusive workplace.


Watch On-Demand


Related Articles


Close [x]

Get our Saba Blog Digest email delivered right to your inbox.

Join over 100,000 of your HR peers: