When is a joke just a joke, and when does it cross the line to become harassment?
Throughout our recent series of articles, we’ve explored the subject of workplace harassment from myriad angles and viewpoints. We’ve discussed the different kinds of harassment, the risk factors for harassment, and what harassment can cost an organization, as well as how to create an anti-harassment initiative, how to design anti-harassment training, and how to conduct an investigation into a harassment claim.
What we haven’t fully addressed is that question above. That’s because, when determining the difference between a joke and the basis for a harassment claim, there isn’t one universally definitive answer. Instead, each organization needs to implement its own system that empowers leadership to swiftly and thoroughly process claims and make determinations on a case-by-case basis. Such a system is critical to any environment in which employees feel respected, protected, and engaged at work.
During our recent webinar, Best Practices for Creating an Anti-Harassment Initiative, we explored each of the 4 pillars of an effective anti-harassment initiative highlighted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you missed the webinar, or would like to review what we learned, read on for a recap of those 4 pillars, as well as how compliance automation can make each of them possible.
Pillar 1 Leadership & Accountability
You may know this as tone from the top or board of director oversight. Basically, the EEOC wants to make sure that people accountable for their organizations are actually invested in the anti-harassment process. That means leadership understands that it’s going to take staff time and resources to make the program happen. That level of buy-in from the executive leadership team or your board of directors is what sets the tone for the overall program being successful within the organization.
In order to assess the efficacy of your program, it’s a good idea at the outset to conduct a risk assessment into where your organization currently stands, so that you can measure changes as your program matures. (Don’t know where to start? Take the Compli Harassment Risk Assessment here.)
Once you have that risk assessment and buy-in from the top, it’s important to not only inform everyone within your organization of your program, but to motivate them to participate. This is not an employee-only problem: supervisors may engage in quid pro quo, for instance. Make sure to educate everyone, and apply the program equally, across all levels of your organization.
Finally, be committed to taking action based on what your initiative reveals. If results indicate that employees are not engaging with your policies, not completing training, or not following prescribed conduct, you need to be ready to address the issue and follow through with prompt, consistent, and proportionate disciplinary measures.
How automation makes it possible: through oversight and communication tools. With an automated compliance system, you can develop specialized video messages from your executive leadership team and send out reminders to everyone within your organization that ending harassment is a priority for your organization.
Pillar 2 Clear Policies
As Steve Roppolo discussed in our last article, every organization should adopt an unequivocal, zero-tolerance statement about harassment. Be sure to write the policy in clear language that everyone can understand, regardless of job function, experience, or reading level; avoid jargon if at all possible.
Make sure to include assurances that immediate and proportionate corrective action will be taken when harassment is determined to have occurred.
Your policy also needs to include a clear description of the reporting system, as well as an appropriate confidentiality statement.
If any manager at your organization has the ability to intake a report and forward it to the necessary resource, ensure that all managers know how their specific roles fit into the overall initiative. By educating your workforce about the way your system operates, you’re also keeping people accountable to address harassment wherever and however they experience, witness, or hear about it.
How automation makes it possible: by giving all employees access to the same information. Our platform, for instance, provides compliance managers with a central location to upload, edit, and disseminate relevant policy documents.
Pillar 3 Compliance Training
Training is a great opportunity to bring your initiative to life and supplement dry policy language with tailored education and real-world examples of harassment.
Your organization’s training should be supported by leadership: they need to believe in what they’re educating their workforce on, and believe in their policy and be ready to follow through with it.
Training needs to be regularly repeated and reinforced. Typically, we see this in a recurring cadence, usually annually. Moreover, some states have requirements that managers specifically undergo training every two years.
The training should be actively engaging to participants. Don’t merely give your workforce a video to passively watch. Instead, provide participants with questions to answer, activities to complete, and other interactive elements.
The training needs to describe the unacceptable behavior and provide examples of what that might look like. Think back to our original question. Your organization’s training can provide examples of where that line between jokes and harassment really lies. This can be immensely valuable for your employees to understand what their role is in their compliance obligations.
The training also should clarify what consequences employees face for failing to conform to proper workplace behavior. Employees tend to take harassment more seriously if they know their job could be on the line if they’re caught engaging in it.
Last, organizations should design training specific to managers and supervisors. Of course, training should be applied equally across your organization, but managers and supervisors who have claim intake responsibility need to be aware of their roles as leaders.
How automation makes it possible: through customizable training controls. With an automated system, you can administer training tailored to individuals’ unique roles, departments, and learning styles. An automated platform also makes it easy to break training up into smaller segments and deliver it in a way that doesn’t interfere with employees’ day-to-day work, but actually supplements that work.
Pillar 4 Reporting & Investigation
When you think of your organization’s harassment reporting process, think “exceptionally available.” That means creating a supportive, safe reporting environment that provides multiple channels for report intake. For instance, if someone is uncomfortable going to their supervisor (e.g in a quid pro quo situation), they need to understand they have the opportunity to report to any manager at the organization.
Your process should incorporate timely responses and an investigation that…
- is run by well-trained, objective, and neutral investigators;
- is properly documented;
- includes mechanisms to determine if retaliation has occurred, and gives leadership the authority to impose appropriate sanctions;
- does not presume guilt or punish unless and until a complete investigation determines that harassment has occurred.
Finally, people who report harassment should be confident that the organization is taking claims seriously dedicating full resources to the investigation—regardless of the outcome of the investigation. Always make sure to tie a bow on the process—“even an ugly bow,” as Steve says—by circling back to the person who reported the claim and informing them of what steps have been taken.
How automation makes it possible: by giving employees another avenue to report harassment. An automated intake system allows employees to file a complaint in private, on their terms. Compliance managers can make the process anonymous or require the reporter to disclose their identity as part of that intake process. Regardless, the more avenues you have for intake, the better.
Using Compligo for an Anti-Harassment Initiative
Our automated compliance system, Compligo, offers a few more tools for organizations looking to reduce their liability and end workplace harassment.
The platform’s audit and reporting functions allow you to check in on how your employees and managers are doing, in real-time, through an organization-wide dashboard. You can see which groups within your employee population have read and attested to agreeing to abide by the conduct outlined in your policy, as well as who’s completed the training. You can also track trends across locations or among employment groups, and drill down into specific areas to figure out why certain groups or employees may be lagging behind.
It’s also a defense mechanism. In the event that litigation comes up, our automated system will equip you with time- and date-stamped information. In a wrongful termination suit, for instance, you can confirm employees’ identities through the system to prove that an employee knew of the conduct that was expected of them and failed to adhere to that standard.
Finally, Compligo users gain access to a team of compliance and HR professionals who can answer questions with regard to issues such as investigations and best practices.