HR Leads Business

Nov 1, 2017 | Barry Lawrence, MBA, aPHR, HRCI Staff Writer

How HR Can Combat Sexual Harassment and Bullying at Work

Sexual harassment in the workplace is making the news again. The latest allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others have created a "watershed moment." Over a million voices have shared Twitter posts with #MeToo as victims of workplace sexual harassment or abuse.

The Weinstein Company, Uber and Fox News are the latest examples of companies that "looked the other way." The unsettling reports have sparked even more stories of the terrible things that can happen to people at companies without zero-tolerance policies, and without strong HR leaders to train employees, hear complaints and mitigate risks.

The #MeToo movement has made women — and men — feel more empowered than ever to come forward, as they should, when harassed, abused or bullied. This may be a good time for HR professionals to remind their employees that offensive and inappropriate behaviors have no place in the workforce —and that their doors are open.

Employers Obliged to Take Action

"Zero-tolerance policies serve as more than just automatic consequences for certain types of employee behaviors," says Sandra M. Reed, SPHR, the author of A Guide to the Human Resource Body of Knowledge™ (HRBoK™), published by HR Certification Institute® (HRCI®). "Zero tolerance also symbolizes a strong employer stance on issues of great importance to the company and its culture. When employers take action on these policies, it sends a message to others that the company takes abusive behavior seriously, thus encouraging reporting.”

Fears of retaliation keep many victims from reporting harassment. HR must address these concerns by demonstrating an "obligation to prohibit retaliation against employees who come forward, even if their charges prove to be false," Reed tells HR Leads Business. "It was apparent that Weinstein [allegedly] was able to get away with repeated offenses because the Hollywood culture discouraged reporting through retaliatory practices."

Sexual Harassment Law

"It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."

Keep in mind that harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, the EEOC warns. Harassment, for example, "can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex" or "offensive comments about women in general."

Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 and subsequent amendments require employers to furnish a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. There are two forms of sexual harassment that must be prevented by employers:

  • Quid pro quo. This is a legal term that means, in Latin, "this for that." It occurs when a supervisor or manager asks for sexual favors in return for some type of favorable employment action. "Sexual favors" is a broad term that covers actions ranging from unwanted touching to more explicit requests.
  • Hostile work environment. This has been defined by the EEOC as an environment in which an individual or individuals are subjected to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct "when submission to or rejection if this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects and individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates and intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

In most cases, a single incident of inappropriate or unwelcome behavior does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment, but in some cases when the actions or behaviors are particularly offensive or intimidating, the EEOC may find that harassment has occurred. A hostile work environment can also be found to exist for victims who have been affected by unwelcome offensive conduct toward someone other than themselves.

"A single incident of improper behavior or obnoxious co-workers do not harassment make," Reed says. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII was not intended to be a "general civility code."

Bullying: Even More Pervasive

Of course, civility in the workplace does matter. A healthy work environment is not only free from sexual harassment, but also free from other kinds of threatening, intimidating or humiliating behaviors.

"While some types of employee behaviors my not rise to the level of being unlawful," Reed notes, "many states are turning to HR to educate managers on ‘abusive conduct,’ known by its more familiar term, ‘workplace bullying.’ For HR, this is significant, potentially even more so than the headline-making sexual harassment cases."

Organizations such as the Healthy Workplace Campaign (HWC) are pushing for strong legislation to prohibit workplace bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute, also lobbying for new anti-bully law, reports that bullying happens much more often than unlawful harassment. Hispanic workers are the most frequent targets and it is believed that more than 25 percent of employers take no action when bullying behavior is reported.

HR Must Take Prevention Seriously

Sharon L. McKnight, CCP, SPHR, writing for HR Daily Advisor, provides some ways HR can reduce or eliminate bullying at work. Her advice includes management commitment to a bully-free environment, identifying potential aggressors and watching for signs of stress throughout the organization.

"Dealing with a bully, whether on the playground or the workplace, can be a traumatic, not to mention energy-sapping experience," McKnight says. "When a bully is present, everyone stays on edge, never knowing when — or who — the bully will strike next."

HR professionals should be careful to follow guidelines that create an affirmative defense to show that the company takes the prevention of harassment and other kinds of abuses seriously, Reed advises.

"By creating written policies, training supervisors and employees on unlawful behaviors as well as behaviors that go against the company culture, investigating all claims promptly and prohibiting retaliation, HR can help contribute to a safe work environment for all employees."