Should HR professionals re-evaluate their role in dealing with sexual harassment claims? Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins thinks so.
Most organisations position respect, transparency and truth-telling as values to live by, yet the majority workplace challenges stem from a lack of the three.
This is particularly clear when examining workplace responses to sexual harassment, which tend to focus on reactive processes instead of proactive ones.
“A focus on a respectful culture really only grabs everyone’s attention when you’ve had some pretty shocking, disrespectful conduct,” says Kate Jenkins, sex discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
“The advice given to the HR community… is underpinned by legal obligations and these are only enlivened after a complaint has been made.”
HR professionals are crucial in putting an end to sexual harassment at work, but many could be focusing their attention on the wrong part of the process.
Moving away from a system based on complaints
The AHRC’s 2018 national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces shocked many by uncovering just how pervasive workplace sexual harassment is – almost two in five women and just over one in four men experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This led to the creation of the comprehensive Respect@Work report, launched at the start of last year.
There’s plenty to unpack in this report, but to help HR leaders prioritise their efforts, Jenkins starts the conversation around a move away from complaint-based processes to one where HR professionals advocate for preventative measures.
“That means thinking about how deep prevention works, thinking about the various risks and trying to mitigate them,” says Jenkins. She uses the mining industry as an example.
“[This industry] realised when you send people to remote work sites, when you [employ] men predominantly, and very few women, there are some factors that increase that risk.”
Another risk example might be a workplace with above average turnover rates or a culture that accepts ‘open secrets’ (things are known but ignored) as the status quo.
Identifying and mitigating risks needs to be on everyone’s agenda.
“HR professionals can also focus more on collaboration, both across industries and within the organisation, to share that idea that cultures of equality and respect aren’t just an HR responsibility.”
Kate Jenkins will be speaking on a panel at AHRI’s International Women’s Day event on 9 March. Register now to ensure you hear this important conversation and to learn from from keynote speaker Gretchen Carlson – former Fox News anchor whose story was made into the popular film, Bombshell. Pricing starts from $99 and group registrations are available.
HR learning to shift its role
For HR, one of the biggest barriers to effectively dealing with sexual harassment claims in the workplace is that some employees, rightly or wrongly, simply don’t trust you.
While there are plenty of capable, professional and empathic HR leaders out there, the prevailing thought is that HR is just there to protect the organisation.
“The narrative of ‘don’t trust HR’ is extremely concerning because they’ve got a lot to add, but you need to understand that there are complex reasons for why people fear coming forward.
“It’s not that employees don’t trust you because you’re not a good person, so don’t take offence,” she says.
“You need to recognise the inherent conflict that exists. No matter how earnest you are, you are paid for by the organisation. If someone comes forward, they could sue you and the organisation for sexual harassment, and how you deal with it could add to the risk for the organisation.”
“A good way to ensure you’re prepared is to assume sexual harassment is happening in your workplace.”
Instead, HR professionals need to think about how they can be more sophisticated about the processes they put in place and how they identify potential risks within the organisation.
This might be setting up anonymous reporting lines, she suggests, or offering independent, third-party reporting channels.
When engaging an independent party, Jenkins stresses that you need to assess their expertise vigorously because the AHRC’s research shows that independent investigators don’t always get it right.
More often than not, it’s the line managers who employees feel most comfortable reporting to.
“A lot of people don’t even know [the HR representative],” says Jenkins. “When we asked people who made them feel safe at work, it was the line manager that was mentioned most.
Taking the time to upskill and train line managers could be hugely beneficial in helping free up HR to put their attention and energy into more valuable areas.
“I heard through the inquiry how HR can hugely help sexual harassment issues, and also hugely hinder them – they can really contribute to the harm. The first thing I would say about that is as an HR person, understand this is not just about dealing with individual complaints. That’s incredibly time-consuming.”
HR’s focus should be on identify the trends that can inform the systematic factors contributing to sexual harassment, she adds.
HR also has a broader role in influencing the diversity and inclusion agenda more broadly.
“The best prevention is gender equality and more inclusive workplaces, because that creates environments where sexual harassment is less likely to occur, and also more likely to be acted upon if it’s reported.”
Jenkins has spoken with many powerful leaders who tell her they’re doing all they can to encourage employees to speak out, but no one is actually coming forward.
“No matter how genuine and earnest you are in encouraging people to come forward, that’s not always the barrier to why people aren’t. There are lots of different reasons why people don’t come forward.”
According to the 2018 national enquiry, some of these barriers include:
- Fearing people will say you’re overreacting
- Fearing negative backlash (from the harasser)
- Fearing being fired or having career progression halted
- Worrying that no action would be taken
- Feeling like it’s “easier to keep quiet”
- Not deeming the incident as serious enough to report
- Fearing the reporting process would be too embarrassing or difficult
- Perceiving of a lack of confidentiality in the reporting process
A good way to ensure you’re prepared is to assume sexual harassment is happening in your workplace, says Jenkins, and then take the time to digest industry reports and trends to help you and your people to see the bigger picture.
If you’re after practical ways to take action now, Jenkins offers a few to get started:
- Read chapter six of the Respect@Work report to learn more about the prevention systems you can put in place.
- Work directly with line managers to help them build respectful teams and create an environment where it is safe to speak up.
- Consider training in trauma and victim-centric approaches for HR, executives and line managers. Recommendation 45 of the Respect@Work report outlines what this training should entail.
“I would really encourage HR people to read the whole Respect@Work report, or at least read the executive summary, so they have an intuitive understanding of how we need to do this differently, because that can make a huge difference.
“It offers new insights, so if you’ve been around for awhile I’d encourage you to read it to make sure you are up with the cutting-edge information about how to handle and prevent sexual harassment.”