This small tweak to your sexual harassment policy could have profound impacts in helping to eradicate this behaviour from your workplace – just ask this law firm.
When an employee is sexually harassed, an employer’s response shouldn’t be to simply trigger the chain of events put in place to deal with it – that is, the investigation stage, support for the harassed employee followed by some kind of punishment doled out to the perpetrator (we know this final step is often skipped).
Employees shouldn’t have to be sexually harassed before their workplaces take action. Preventative measures need to be embedded within the foundations in which your organisation is built upon.
Law firm Lander & Rogers’s proactive approach was to make a small but impactful tweak to its sexual harassment policy by implementing a ‘no bystander rule’. This means employees who witness sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate behaviours in the workplace are contractually obligated to report it.
HRM spoke with Lander & Rogers CEO Genevieve Collins and its partner in Workplace Health and Safety, Julian Riekert, about how they have created a culture to encourage the success of this new policy and how other organisations can follow suit.
Small change, big impact
Lander & Rogers created two separate policies, one to govern non-consensual relationships and another for consensual workplace relationships (more on that in a moment). For the former, they simply changed the wording in their existing sexual harassment policy.
“We changed ‘should report’ to ‘must report’. [We wanted to] to eradicate the culture of silence that can occur around sexual harassment. This requires any staff member who experiences, witnesses, or becomes aware of sexual harassment in the workplace to report it.
“The only way to eradicate [this behaviour] is by making reporting compulsory,” Collins adds.
Riekert and Collins say Australia’s strong “anti-dobbing culture” can be a barrier to people coming forward. Many of us are raised not to be “dibber dobbers” towards our friends and siblings. By the time we reach adulthood, that value can become ingrained and colour the way we interact with our colleagues, even when we don’t agree with their behaviour.
“This creates a cloak of silence over these issues, and because of the sensitivities in sexual harassment cases, it’s not uncommon for people to say, ‘I want to tell you about this, but I don’t actually want this to be treated as a formal report’,” says Riekert.
“That puts the employer in a very difficult situation because they think, ‘If anybody says to me after the event, ‘Did you know this was happening?’ hand on heart, I’d have to say, ‘Yes, I did.’ Then the next question will be, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it?’ And, ‘She asked me not to’ can sound a bit feeble in that context.”
A ‘no bystander rule’ would be particularly pertinent for an HR professional as they often find themselves in this situation; they’re duty bound to call out bad behaviour at work, yet they’ve been asked by an employee not to formalise their complaint for fear of repercussions.
“The only way to eradicate [this behaviour] is by making reporting compulsory.” – Genevieve Collins, CEO Lander & Rogers.
As we know, in the past the rhetoric around HR’s involvement in sexual harassment claims is often ‘don’t bother telling them, they’re only here to protect the organisation. While untrue, it’s a stereotype that many HR professionals have spent years trying to prove wrong. A policy like this has the potential to make things much easier for HR. The perpetrator, the person coming forward and their colleagues know that the HR professional is obligated to formally report what’s shared.
However, this raises another potential hurdle – what if knowing that all complaints would be formally acted upon made staff more reluctant to come forward? To this, Collins and Riekert say that it’s incredibly important to have all of your workplaces’ key stakeholders commit to doing their part to nurture the right culture that would see a policy like this take flight.
Transparency above all else
The goal here would be to make mandatory reporting as commonplace as it is in the medical professions. Most patients understand that they can speak freely with their doctor/psychologist and share personal information, but when a line is crossed – such as talk of self-harm or harming others – each party knows the medical professional is bound to report it. That expectation is set from the moment they walk in the door.
Wouldn’t it be great if workplace sexual harassment was treated with the same sense of duty? To do this, the most obvious place to start is to centre the safety of those reporting, says Collins and Riekert.
“We assure people that the report will be treated respectfully, seriously and confidentiality,” says Collins. “Their career won’t be impacted and they won’t be personally tarnished in any way.”
But the buck can’t stop there. Changing employees’ behaviour relies on a change in workplace culture – be it a small one, or a seismic shift.
Leadership transparency, they say, is the key to making this work. Collins does an “Ask me Anything” session each month where employees can submit their anonymous questions to her.
“Honestly, I can’t describe the impact Genevieve’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions have had,” says Riekert. “People are so grateful to work at Landers in such an open culture… I’m quite sure if you asked employees if they felt a complaint about sexual harassment would be treated seriously, they’d say yes.”
Collins adds that being transparent about businesses finances is also a great way to break down the hierarchical barriers that often prevent people from coming forward.
“That creates a sense of safety because things are no longer a secret,” she says. “We’ve also removed from our workplace contracts the standard clause which says you’re obliged to keep your pay confidential. Now people can share their financial information with someone, if they choose to. There’s a perception that this is likely to create less gender pay disparity.“
Transparency initiatives, Riekert says, create an “empowering environment”. This comes off the back of helpful training and ensuring the right leaders are placed at the helm of sexual harassment reporting lines.
“Responsibility starts off at the board level and has to percolate all the way down the organisation. We see this as being in keeping with that general trend towards more openness and integrity in the workplace,” Riekert adds.
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Addressing consensual relationships
Lander & Rogers also felt it was important to address consensual workplace relationships.
“In a sense, sexual harassment is easy to deal with. It’s a crime. We’ve got zero tolerance for it. But the nuanced relationships in a workplace, which also cause difficulties in terms of power and balance, also have to be managed,” says Collins.
This policy ensures that such relationships don’t adversely impact those involved – the couple or their colleagues. Lander & Rogers employees don’t have to report the fact that they’re in a relationship with a colleague – Collins and Riekert say they don’t really care about that. What matters is how the relationship impacts the work environment.
“Is it any of our business that two people have entered into a genuinely consensual relationship? The answer to that in most circumstances is that it’s none of our business,” says Riekert. “Except for when the [more senior] person is in the position to influence terms and conditions of employment, benefits, promotions, all those kinds of things. Then we say, now it’s our business.”
The consensual relationship policy wasn’t built to account for gender, seniority or relationship status, Collins adds.
“It’s based purely through the lens of conflict,” she says. “If you’re involved in a consensual relationship that throws up an actual, perceived or potential conflict, then it needs to be reported and managed… I don’t think you could ignore that and expect a standalone sexual harassment policy to work effectively.”
Follow their lead…
It’s the time of year in which sexual harassment claims soar. Alcohol-fuelled Christmas parties lead to all kinds of unethical and unacceptable behaviours. Employers need to be confident they have robust measures in place to stop perpetrators in their tracks.
Organisations that want to make their policies worth more than the paper they are written on can start by making a commitment to be more transparent.
“Having policies is one thing – everybody takes policies with a pinch of salt – but the demonstration of the values behind the policies are so important,” says Riekert.
Your culture doesn’t have to be in disrepair in order for you to start giving policies and approaches like this the time of day – you don’t need to have a sexual harassment problem before you have a sexual harassment solution.