Tag Archives: harassment

Bystander Interventions Without Paternalism or Re-victimization

I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog.

Responsible employers, among other steps, train managers on their “bystander” obligations. It is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. As a bystander with power, if you see or hear harassing behavior, you must respond to it. But how?

Let’s take a “hypothetical.” A business meeting takes place among executives.  There are four men and one woman.  During the meeting, the group realizes they are not going to meet Wall Street’s expectations. One of the men snaps “oh F…”

After he said it, the F bomber looks to the one woman at the table and says, “I’m sorry.” Another man at the table digs the hole deeper by adding:   “He did not mean to offend you.” [How did he know that?]

By focusing on the one woman at the table, both male executives not only drew attention to her (re-victimization) but also suggested that she was a fragile creature who needed to be rescued and protected from their vulgar mouths (paternalism).

In this hypothetical, the woman was not offended by the expletive when it was used in response to bad economic news.  But she certainly did not like the attention being placed on her.  Having finished reading Jane Austin, she was not going to fall off her Victorian chair because of a curse word.

In this case, if anything were to be said, it should have been: “let’s keep it professional” but without focusing on the woman.

Change the facts: what if what was said was a “joke” that demeaned women? Should not someone apologize to her now?

NO!  Again, that only makes her the focus.  In other words, it makes it worse.  Plus, it suggests, were she not there, the demeaning comment would have been okay.

The focus should be on the person who made the comment.  Looking at the person who said it, someone with power (including HR) should say: “That is offensive to me. We will talk later.”

Respond “in the moment” so that others do not assume your silence is complicity. Then, take appropriate corrective action more confidentially.

Preventing harassment is more than preventing liability; it is about preventing harm. We need to train on “in the moment:” responses to bad behavior, or we may create harm in the process of trying to correct it.

THIS BLOG SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATION OR ESTABLISHING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.

Construing a Continuum of Harassing Behaviors

I am pleased to share my latest article posted to Bloomberg Law Insights.

We hear many people use the terms “sexual misconduct” or “sexual harassment” to describe a continuum of harassing behaviors. Further, more and more employers are adopting or reissuing “zero tolerance” policies for such collectively defined behaviors.

Of course, we must put an end to the litany of horrific behaviors to which women (and some men) have been subjected. There is no defense to the indefensible.

But we also need to be careful not to use a single label to describe a broad spectrum of unacceptable conduct. For example, we all know that a sexually suggestive comment on someone’s appearance is objectively unacceptable. However, if we put that comment in the same category as sexual assault, we risk minimizing the seriousness of the latter by lumping it with the former.
That is part of the danger in zero-tolerance messaging. At first blush, “zero tolerance” sounds good. However, it may be heard as suggesting that, regardless of the severity of the unacceptable conduct, the
wrongdoer will be terminated.

This is dangerous because it may discourage victims who just want the problematic behavior to stop from reporting it because they do not want the wrongdoer to be terminated. Yes, she (or he) will not be a
silence-breaker but instead will suffer in silence to avoid someone else’s suffering more.

Zero-tolerance messaging is dangerous for another reason. A leader who becomes aware of unacceptable conduct by a star performer may not report it for fear that the star will be terminated. The thinking is entirely unacceptable but it is also foreseeable.

So, instead of lumping all behaviors under one label, we need to look at a hierarchy of bad behaviors. Instead of applying corporate capital punishment in every case, we need to take proportionate corrective
action based on how bad the conduct is. At a very minimum, the corrective action must be reasonably calculated to deter further unacceptable conduct.

With this background, here is a hierarchy of behaviors that constitute misconduct or harassment for employers to consider when preparing policies, training programs, investigations, and corrective actions.

1. Lack of Respect/Civility
The law does not require that employers be respectful or civil. Yes, an executive can yell and intimidate its employees, so long as it does not target employees for such hostile conduct based on their gender,
race, religion or other “protected group” status.

While such unacceptable conduct does not violate the law, it violates human decency. Plus, it is bad for business. Employees who are bullied (as well as those who witness it) underperform, if they do not leave
for a better workplace.

Further, disrespectful or uncivil behavior creates fertile soil for harassing behavior that may break the law. One witness who testified before the EEOC Select Task Force on Harassment called incivility the
“gateway drug” to harassment.

For all of these reasons, employers are well advised to respond to disrespectful, uncivil and abusive behavior, even if not unlawful. While employees may call such behavior harassment, employers must be
careful to avoid the label. It may not be.

2. Gray Areas
Telling a colleague that her or his new suit is “sharp” at a social event is not harassing behavior. Conversely, telling that colleague she looks “hot” in that new suit is harassing behavior. Let’s leave what is clear and enter the land of gray.

What if a male colleague tells a female colleague she looks “attractive” in that suit. He may mean “nice,” but his use of “attractive” may be heard as “hot.” The same word may have very different meanings between the parties to the communication.

We all need to be more thoughtful about what we say and do. If a word can have a sexual or suggestive meaning, then find another word.

As employers, we need to keep in mind that not all cases are as black and white as those we have read or heard about during the last few months. In some of the complaints we receive, the conduct falls into gray areas. In such areas, at least for the first instance of such conduct, proportionate corrective action may consist of non-punitive coaching or counseling.

3. Sexually Harassing but Not “Bad Enough” to Be Illegal
Under federal law, for sexual harassment to be actionable, among other factors, it must be severe or pervasive. Some state or local jurisdictions, such as New York City, have established lower hurdles that
must be met for conduct to be actionable.

So, at least under federal law, the following behaviors, in and of themselves, probably do not constitute unlawful conduct:
• a sexist “joke”;
• an inappropriate comment of a sexual or suggestive nature; or
• a leer or a gawk

To prevent harm to employees and to avoid legal liability, employers should respond to sexually harassing behavior, even if the behavior in and of itself is not unlawful. In an employer’s preventive efforts, this message must resonate loud and clear. An employee does not have to violate the law to violate the employer’s policy.

However, in taking corrective action in these circumstances, employers should avoid the legal label. Use “sexually harassing behavior” rather than “sexual harassment.”

But, even here, distinctions must be made within the category of “sexually harassing behavior.” For example:
• If an executive makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse than if a lower-level employee
does the same. Power magnifies the wrong.
• If a lower-level employee makes a degrading comment about women, it is worse if he has done so before and been warned not to do it again.

The label we apply to this category of unacceptable conduct does not alone dictate the nature of appropriate corrective action. What is proportionate also may depend on myriad other factors.

4. Sexual Harassment
Some conduct, in and of itself, constitutes sexual harassment.

The clearest example is when a supervisor or other higher-ranking employee conditions the granting of any term, condition, or benefit of employment on a subordinate’s submission to sexual advances or
punishes the subordinate for not submitting to them. This is often what is referred to as “quid pro quo” harassment, that is, “this for that.”

Another example may be use of the “C” word. Some courts have found that saying the “N” word once may create a racially hostile work environment. A court very well could find that using the “C” word once
may create a sexually hostile work environment.

If conduct is or may be sexual harassment in and of itself, the proportionate corrective action is almost always termination. I say “almost always” rather than “always” because there could be an exception,
such as if the employee’s supervisor used the same hate word and the subordinate said he went “along to get along” with his supervisor. In these circumstances, the supervisor should be terminated. The case of the subordinate may be less clear.

While the severity of the conduct in these cases must inform the level of corrective action, employers still may wish to stay away from the legal label. Employers can do what is right for their employees without
necessarily making what may be argued to be an admission of liability.

5. Sexual Assault
In some high-profile cases, we are dealing with more than the civil wrong of sexual harassment. We are dealing with a criminal wrong: sexual assault.

If, after an appropriate investigation, an employer concludes that there has been a sexual assault, there is only one proportionate remedy: termination.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize that law enforcement may have elected not to pursue the matter does not mean the employer should ignore the matter. While the determination by law enforcement may be one factor an employer may consider, it rarely will be determinative.

Even where an employer concludes there was a sexual assault, such as grabbing a woman’s breasts or genitals, the employer still is better off avoiding legal labels and describing the behaviors.

Conclusion
While there is a continuum of bad behavior, each category does not exist in isolation. We need to recognize that each level of the hierarchy of bad behavior creates a cultural environment where the next level of bad behavior is more likely to occur. Just as lack of civility can be the “gateway” to sexual harassment, sexual harassment can be the gateway to sexual assault. We must have zero tolerance to bad behavior but with a proportionate response to how bad the behavior is so that the bad behavior is not repeated or becomes worse.

This article is not legal advice and does not apply to specific factual situations.

Men Must Do More to End Harassment

But again we have been rocked by explosive allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, there are now more than 30 women who have stepped forward. Weinstein admits to bad behavior but claims it was all consensual. From what I have read, this is not a good defense, even for a science fiction movie.

Weinstein is far from the only predator in Hollywood, and Hollywood is just a symptom of the problem. The casting couch can affect who gets plum assignments, leads, contacts, etc. in any industry. Few men with power would ever consider, let alone engage in, the kind of conduct engaged in by Weinstein and others but they must do more than just refrain from the indefensible. With power, men have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to create cultures where harassment does not flourish. So what do we do?

1. Stand up in the moment.
You don’t need to have a daughter to stand up. You just need a conscience and a spine. So speak up if you see or hear bad behavior. To be silent is to condone. Yes, the worst behaviors are very often private but sometimes they are accompanied by less serious but still bad public behavior. For example, don’t laugh at the sexist jokes. Instead, make clear they are offensive to you and then take corrective action.

The less serious public behaviors may be but the tip of the iceberg. Where appropriate, engage a third party to see if there is more than meets the eye. Climate surveys by skilled professionals can uncover what has not been reported without creating claims where none may exist.

2. Don’t wait for the direct complaint.
The victims of harassment frequently are embarassed or feel unwarranted shame. Some women won’t vocalize their discomfort but instead avoid the harasser or become uncomfortable when his name is mentioned. Observe closely for, and listen carefully to, signals that something may be wrong.

There won’t always be signals. But where there are warning signs, think about how to offer your help in a way that respects the recipient and does not create an issue where there may not be one. This can and has been done successfully.
3. Create additional reporting vehicles.
Fear of retaliation is a great inhibitor of timely reporting. So you may want to take a look at your company’s policies and at least consider having a procedure by which employees can report complaints externally, even anonymously.

Not every complaint is true and that applies to anonymous complaints, too. But every complaint should be taken seriously, and I have been involved in matters where the ability to report externally and anonymously has led to the facts that resulted in the unmasking of a serial harasser. So consider the option.

4. Hold other leaders accountable.
Harassers sometimes generate big bucks and that is why individuals sometimes cover up for, and even truckle up to, them. You need to cross their bridge to get meaningful work and the money that goes with it. Make clear to other leaders that you expect them not only to refrain from harassing behavior (severe or subtle) but also to report to a designated person or entity complaints or potential problems which they see, hear or of which they otherwise become aware. Ostriches don’t make good leaders.

As with all expectations, reward those who live up to them and punish those who don’t. Your organization is only as strong as its reputation and it can be destroyed if leaders are passive bystanders.

5. Model what you expect.
Most of all, men in power need to be good role models. There is nothing cool about demeaning women. The abuse is both powerful and pathetic. There is no defense to the indefensible. Sexual addiction is no more a defense to harassment than alcoholism is to driving drunk.

Speaking of alcohol, it is a major risk factor. Some cultures celebrate alcohol and such alcohol-centric cultures take away any slim inhibitors that otherwise might exist. Bottom line: it’s on men. Any questions, pal?

This column was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on 10/20/17.

Carlson v. Ailes: #Harassment and #HR

I am pleased to share my latest post to the SHRM blog regarding the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Fox Channel Host Gretchen Carlson.

By now, I assume you all have read or at least heard about the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Fox Channel Host Gretchen Carlson against Fox CEO Roger Ailes. Since then, at least a half dozen other women have said that they, too, were harassed by Ailes.

When you heard about the allegations, which of the following responses comes closest to your immediate (visceral) reaction:

  1. This is but another example of a powerful man abusing his position to engage in vile sexual harassment.  We have another serial harasser.
  2. Carlson never complained about harassment until her contract was not renewed.  This is but another example of someone complaining about harassment after they don’t get what they want.
  3. I have no idea.  I need to investigate the facts.

If you look at social media or listen to conversations about the case, you will hear a lot of people who “know” it happened or are “certain” it did not. I have not seen or heard too many say, “I have no idea; it needs to be investigated.”

Now, I return to you. If you are like most people, your visceral response was probably 1 or 2. What does that mean?

We hear a lot of talk about implicit bias. Effectively, we are talking about bias of which we may not be aware.

Here, we are talking about a different kind of bias. That is, our initial responses may reflect explicit bias based on our own experiences as employees or as professionals who investigate harassment complaints.

I acknowledge that my emotional response initially was not “3.” Initially, I was suspicious of the allegations based on timing—that would put me in camp #2.

Then, when I heard that there were at least a half dozen other women claiming harassment, my visceral response changed. Carlson spoke out only when she had nothing left to lose and others then spoke out, too. So, that put me in camp #1.

I am grateful that I am aware of my emotional reactions based on my experiences in evaluating harassment cases. If I am aware of my assumptions based on experience (bias), I can consciously avoid them and investigate the facts impartially without such assumptions. That puts me where I belong: camp #3.

Now, I turn to you and ask that you think about your reaction. It very well may reflect your own personal experience in the workplace, as an employee or as an HR professional in receiving and then investigating harassment claims.

It is quite human to learn from and develop assumptions (biases) based on experience. In fact, if our experiences do not inform our instincts, then we have a developmental problem.

But, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions based on our experiences generally without carefully evaluating the facts of a specific case. Remember, each case is not about the broader societal issue but rather what happened in that particular case.

Think of your visceral reaction (instinct) to this case. That may reflect your bias. Now that you know it, be careful of it when you investigate complaints in your workplace.

Remember, every complainant is someone’s child, parent, partner, sibling or friend.

The same is true of every accused.

Both deserve a prompt, impartial and thorough investigation before conclusions are reached.

This blog should not be construed as legal advice (or a political opinion).

EEOC Commissioners Feldblum’s and Lipnic’s Clarion Call to Prevent and Stop Harassment

I am pleased to share my latest post to the SHRM blog regarding the EEOC’s report on the prevention of workplace harassment.

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s holding that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. It seems obvious to all of us today, but it was not at the time the EEOC took the position. It was not until SCOTUS said the EEOC was right that the EEOC’s enforcement position became the law of the land.

Today, SHRM had the honor of having EEOC Commissioners Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic present, to an overflowing crowd, “Agency Update: EEOC’s Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace.”  After receiving a warm introduction from Lisa Horn, SHRM’s Director of Congressional Affairs, who acknowledged the strong relationship between SHRM and the two EEOC Commissioners, the two EEOC Commissioners talked about the reason for the Select Task Force, the study it conducted and the report it is releasing today (Check out www.eeoc.gov).

The Task Force was announced in January of 2015 by the EEOC’s Chair, Jenny R. Yang. Her message: We have made a lot of progress, but the problem is persistent. She named Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic as Co-Chairs of the Task Force.

Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic made clear the purpose of the Select Task Force was to prevent harassment before it becomes actionable. This includes not only sexual harassment claims but also harassment claims based on other protected groups, such as race, color, age and religion.

Last year alone, the EEOC collected $164.5 million for workers in cases alleging harassment. That does not include recoveries by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

For employers, however, harassment is not only an economic risk, but also a business risk. First, there is the reputational cost. There also is decreased productivity and higher turnover.

The Commissioners emphasized that having policies and procedures is not enough.  According to the Commissioners, the importance of leadership is key.

Leaders must make clear that harassment will not be tolerated.  But a commitment (even from the C-Suite) is not enough.   Like all other employees, leaders must be held accountable for what they do—and what they don’t do.

There must be a “proportionate” response to harassing behavior.  To use an expression familiar to all of us in the HR community, “one size does not fit all.”

But, it is more than holding all employees accountable for unacceptable conduct, even “superstars” who bring in the money.  The Commissioners emphasized we must hold accountable those whose job it is to prevent and correct harassment.

Although these were not the precise words used, the message for supervisors and above was clear: to see or hear harassing behavior and do nothing is to condone it.

Throughout the discussion, the Commissioners made clear that, when talking about harassment, they were talking about inappropriate behavior with regard to a protected group (such as sex, race or ethnicity), even if it does not rise to the level of severity or pervasiveness to be actionable.  The goal: to stop it before it becomes actionable.

That led to a critical discussion about training. The Commissioners made clear that, while training is necessary, it alone is not enough.  Rather, it must be part of a “holistic culture of non-harassment that starts from the top.”

Further, to be effective, the training ideally should be “live, in person and customized to your workplace.”  Moreover, the training should be developed with “risk factors” in mind.

The EEOC report that will be released tomorrow includes “risk factors” that make harassment more likely.  Younger workers, workers who work in remote locations and those who are dependent on tips, for example, are at particular risk.

Based on my experience, I agree fully with the EEOC that the training must focus on what is inappropriate, even if it is not necessarily unlawful.  If you focus only on the legal, then individuals who engage in inappropriate conduct may feel more secure in their inappropriate conduct because it is neither severe nor pervasive enough to be illegal.

The EEOC Commissioners also talked about “bystander training” that is common on many school campuses.  They talked about adopting this kind of training so that co-workers feel empowered to intervene and have the tools to do so.

Recognizing that the law does not require civility, the EEOC Commissioners also called for civility training. Feldblum said that incivility and disrespect are “gateway drugs” for harassment. I agree.

Stated otherwise, if you tolerate incivility and disrespect, your culture will be fertile for harassment claims. I surely hope the NLRB was listening.

To minimize your NLRB risk, employers are well advised to give examples of civil and uncivil behavior. Providing specific examples, properly phrased, makes it less likely that the NLRB will believe a reasonable person will perceive the guidance as discouraging behavior protected by section 7 of the NLRA.  So there is no confusion, this is my take on how to mitigate (not eliminate) the risk.

An underlying theme is the importance of creating not only policies, but also a culture that brooks no retaliation. Fear of retaliation is the number one reason why employees suffer in silence.

According to studies cited by the Commissioners, approximately 70-percent of employees who feel harassed do not report it.  That is not good for them or their organizations.

The EEOC’s presentation was a clarion call for all of us to do more to prevent and stop harassment. It will not go away on its own. It’s on all of us, with HR playing a key role, to be part of the fight.

On a personal note, it was an honor to have been on the Task Force with co-SHRM member Patricia Wise.  I think I can speak for Patty and me in saying that we both learned  a great deal as a result of the study and dialogue, and we are ready to help do our part in helping companies do the right things for their employees and themselves by eliminating the persistent but conquerable problem: workplace harassment.

Finally, at a time when we see so much dysfunction in Washington, D.C., it was inspiring to see the bi-partisan collaboration of Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic.  Bi-partisanship is not dead—at least not at the EEOC.

This blog is not legal advice.

The Often Unacknowledged Bias Against Asian Americans

I am pleased to share my latest post for the SHRM blog:  http://blog.shrm.org/blog/the-often-unacknowledged-bias-against-asian-americans

May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month: http://asianpacificheritage.gov/about/. At times, this celebration seems to get much less attention than months dedicated to other groups of the diverse fabric of workplaces.

Perhaps, this is because, as a group, Asian Americans have been largely successful. For example, while less than 30% of the general population has a bachelor’s degree, approximately 50% of Asian Americans do.

However, because a group, broadly defined, has been successful does not mean that we should ignore bias that may exist against individuals in that group. Indeed, focusing on the success of the “group” may result in ignoring bias against the individuals.

So, while this month we celebrate the achievements of Asian Americans, we need to focus on the bias against them, too. If we don’t eradicate the bias, then individuals will not be as successful as they can be. Here are my top 7:

  1. Not all bias is unconscious. Sometimes the bias is quite conscious. It is sometimes framed as “lack of trust.”
  2. Sometimes the bias is based on stereotypes. The stereotype is that Asians are strong in math and science. This may result in their being discriminated against when it comes to jobs that involve strong interpersonal skills, such as human resources.
  3. At times, the bias is unconscious. While we should not generalize in the name of sensitizing, respect is shown in many Asian cultures different from North American norms. Lack of eye contact, which may be intended as respect, may be seen as dissembling. Saying “no” indirectly may be seen as lacking certitude as opposed to promoting face saving.
  4. Because there may be cultural differences, some employees may be less comfortable with employees of Asian heritage. The “not-like-me bias” may result in exclusion of Asian Americans from social and other opportunities to access decision makers that may affect advancement and other opportunities.
  5. Because Asian Americans are often referred to as the “model minority,” more may be expected of them. When they may fall short of our inflated expectations, they may be seen as failing, even when they actually are meeting “standard” expectations. There is no such thing as a positive stereotype.
  6. Or, because of the “model minority myth,” Asian Americans may not get the help they need. If a group is “so successful,” then why do we need to spend time addressing the real bias that keeps individuals within that group from being successful or even more successful?
  7. And, harassment still exists, such as jokes about the shape of Asian employees’ eyes or mimicking the accent of an employee of Asian ancestry. Just plain ugly.

These are but 7 examples of issues to which we need to keep our eyes and ears open and respond appropriately if we see, learn or become aware of them. As leaders, to see and ignore is to condone. There is no such thing as a passive bystander when it comes to discrimination or harassment if you are a leader.

Now, let us celebrate the many achievements of Asian Americans: http://adrian.edu/uploads/files/AsianContributions.pdf. Check out the many websites referenced. The contribution is real.

But may we never forget the abject horror of the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation Never again!

Lean Out?

I am please to share with you my latest SHRM blog post.

Sometimes clients ask me relative to gender:

1.  Would it be gender discrimination if we do X?

2.  Does the law require that we do Y?

Of course, we need to start with the legal imperative.  But, as HR professionals, we know we must transcend the legal imperative and focus on the business necessity (and moral obligation) to ensure gender equality.

For example, some subtle harassment may not be severe or pervasive enough to rise to the level of actionable harassment.  But it very well may create a place where women don’t want to work so they take their talent and contacts to a competitor.

Another example:  the law generally does not mandate that employers provide flexibility to help employees with work-life management.  But rigid employers will lose talented women (and men) to employers who get that flexibility and accountability are not inconsistent if managed correctly.

To paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg’s message in Lean In, organizations cannot survive, let alone thrive, if they exclude half of the pool of talent.  So, HR professionals lean in hard on the business case for gender equality or you may find successful women and women of promise “leaning out” rather than “leaning in.”

Mad Men: End of an Era?

I am pleased to share with you a blog I wrote for SHRM Blog.

Well, “Mad Men” is no more.

As AMC marketed it, we have come to an “end of an era.” Or have we?

While it was only a television show, or so people try to tell me, the workplace implications resonated with so many of us in the HR/business community. Perhaps that is because, while much has changed, some things are still painfully similar. Continue reading Mad Men: End of an Era?

She’s Too Sexy For Her Job

The all-male Supreme Court of Iowa re-affirmed its holding that an employer did not engage in sexual harassment when an employee was fired by her boss because he found her sexually irresistible. He was afraid that, if she remained employed, he would not be able to control the temptation to have a sexual relationship with her in violation of his marital vows.

The Court held this was not because of her gender but because of his “feelings” specific to the employee.  But wouldn’t that same analysis apply to quid pro quo harassment?  Quid pro quo harassment occurs, among other circumstances, where an employer fires a particular employee because she or he refuses to submit to “sexual feelings” that a manager has for her or him. Continue reading She’s Too Sexy For Her Job