HR needs to play a guiding hand in determining how leaders talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, as the Brittany Higgins case demonstrates.
There is enormous complexity involved when a person in a position of authority must respond to a serious allegation such as sexual assault, says Franca Sala Tenna, a former lawyer and director of EEO Specialists, a training company that works with organisations to educate and improve workplace behaviours.
When that assault is being reported heavily in the media, as is the case with the Brittany Higgins rape allegations, the information being provided only offers a “keyhole view” of the whole story, she says.
For these reasons, Sala Tenna is hesitant to judge Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s performance as a communicator during the recent events, although plenty of others have criticised Morrison for invoking his daughters and wife during his response to the allegations.
The way any leader responds in such a situation, and communicates more generally around topics related to sexual harassment, has a major effect on whether people feel safe to make a complaint, whether a bystander is willing to speak up and ultimately the behaviours that occur.
Recognising a dangerous mix
Before they communicate around specific events, leaders should look at the structure and demographics of their organisation to identify possible high risk environments that are more likely to lead to sexual harassment and a passive bystander culture.
According to recent content published by Safe Work Australia, Sala Tenna says, the risk factors are high when an organisation:
- is hierarchical
- has significant power imbalances
- does not demonstrate broad diversity in its people
- sees alcohol used in a work context
- has poor understanding amongst workplace leaders of the nature, drivers and impacts of sexual harassment
In these cases, the organisation has to have more mechanisms in place to counter the risk factors.
“Look at that criteria in light of our parliamentary system,” she says. “I’m doing work with police right now in relation to sexual harassment, and those same boxes are ticked.
“When you’re in such a structure, leaders have to be even more proactive. Unfortunately, my assessment would be that the Australian Parliament has been doing the opposite.”
Registrations for AHRI’s International Women’s Day event will close on 8 March 2021. Make sure you get your ticket before it’s too late. Hear from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and MeToo advocate Gretchen Carlson on how we can end sexual harassment in our workplaces. AHRI members receive a discounted rate.
What does good communication look like?
When a complaint or allegation is made, how should a leader communicate facts and actions to the organisation?
“When a complaint is made, a component of that complaint process is a degree of confidentiality,” says Sala Tenna. “The general rule around confidentiality is that only those directly involved in the resolution of the problem should know.”
The reality, of course, is that people in workplaces talk. Even then, the leader has to be very careful about how they address the issue, to ensure the parameters of confidentiality.
But there is plenty the leader can do.
“Firstly, the leader has to be a role model for outstanding behaviour, both in terms of their own and holding other people to account,” says Sala Tenna. “If they’re in a meeting and they see or hear something which isn’t okay, they need to call it out immediately so everybody can see it’s completely inappropriate.”
Part of a leader’s communication then, is preventative.
“Next, everyone in an organisation needs to know that leaders know what to do in terms of process, and that they will consistently uphold that standard. This creates trust.
“We know less than 20 per cent of people who’ve been sexually harassed will make a complaint. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but some of it is that they don’t trust the person they’d make a complaint to is actually going to do the right thing and follow the right process.
“We want to know that our leaders will have tough conversations and consistently hold people to account, that they will always put following the correct process above any individual person.”
This, Sala Tenna says, means that where possible, leaders should make regular comments. In the midst of an investigation there are only certain things they can say. But at other times, in meetings and conversations and emails, etc., they should be reminding staff of appropriate behaviours and of the business’s solid processes.
This could also include addressing employees when systemic sexual harassment is being reported in the news, such as right now, just to remind them where your organisation stands.
How leaders should talk about sexual harassment
If an event has occurred and a leader has reasonable grounds to believe a portion of the workforce knows about it, and therefore confidentiality is not an immediate concern, the leader must communicate openly about it without giving away more details than necessary.
“They could say, ‘Some of you may be aware that an incident happened, and we want you to know we are following our process in addressing it.’” says Sala Tenna.
“Perhaps they can’t say exactly what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, but they can definitely say, ‘We’re aware of it, and we are dealing with it.’ They can also add a reminder that any behaviours that cross over into sexual harassment, discrimination or bullying are not tolerated.”
HR professionals have an important role in coaching leaders to demonstrate their ‘humanness’ in a way that employees can relate to and trust. This is especially true during contentious circumstances.
Often, leaders will have good intentions when addressing their people (as Scott Morrison would likely say he did) but even the smallest of fumbles can set your organisation back in a huge way.
“Culture is simply the collection of conversations that happen in a workplace. Culture is only created by conversations and corresponding actions.”