Harassment Investigation Procedures in the Age of #MeToo: An Interview
Women have made great strides over the past year or so in bringing to light the complicated and sensitive topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. In the wake of the start of #MeToo, #TimesUp and similar movements, many are asking: what changes have been made, and what changes can we continue to make?
The effects of sexual harassment in the workplace and otherwise are far-reaching on both an individual and societal level for women. Women who have been sexually harassed often face many mental health hurdles in the wake of the incident(s), and a negative work environment can horribly impact both one’s physical and mental stability in the long-term.
Debbie Muller, founder and CEO of human resources solution, HR Acuity, advises major tech companies about their processes in handling #MeToo complaints, and also runs a weekly roundtable for Fortune 500 companies to discuss ways to handle employee issues. I recently had the privilege of getting to chat with Deb on what modern-day employees should know about harassment in the workplace and the changing landscape surrounding harassment investigation procedures.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to become involved with your work.
Deb: Before founding HR Acuity, I spent over 20 years in various HR roles and I found myself doing lots of HR investigations, a role that I loved and was good at. With investigations, the more you do, the better you get at them. As a result, I tended to be leading more complex cases. That experience morphed into HR Acuity, born out of a need for better harassment investigation procedures in organizations.
Please tell us a little bit about HR Acuity!
Deb: HR Acuity initially started as a firm focused on conducting investigations for organizations. But we soon realized that the real opportunity was to help organizations improve their own investigatory and employee relations processes through technology.Many people are surprised to learn that most organizations do not have standard harassment investigation procedures in place, much less tracking, to manage employee behaviors or incidents that require investigations. This is sort of the last bastion of manual processes. But times up (pun intended)! Organizations can no longer remain in the dark about what is going on in their organizations – the risk is too high.
People will do inappropriate things at work. It is how an organization identifies, acknowledges and manages those incidents that creates either a culture of indifference and fear or one of high engagement and respect. And that is what HR Acuity is all about. Yes, we are a technology company – but our lens is “HR First” – we partner with organizations to provide them with the insights and practices to mitigate risk and ensure a safe workplace for their employees.
What kinds of changes have you seen companies make in the (almost) year since the Harvey Weinstein story broke?
Deb: Employee Relations used to be like payroll — something that just got done. Post-#MeToo, that has changed. ER has been elevated to be part of the strategic conversations in HR and within the C-suite. Leaders need to understand what is going on in their organizations and where there is risk before becoming a hashtag. There is a new understanding that tracking and analyzing the behavior of human resources is just as critical to our business success as what we do with our other resources, like supplies, or inventory.
Within the Employee Relations Roundtable Community that we lead, we are seeing innovative ways that organizations are pivoting their practices. It’s not just about doing more training or revising a policy. Organizations that are committed to making a difference are examining the impact of current harassment investigation procedures and making some big shifts that years ago would have caused them to gasp! For example, capturing a “net promoter” score for Human Resources… how likely is it for an employee to recommend that another employee go to HR for help? Or becoming more transparent in communicating the actions that they are taking against employees who are found to violated policies.
What does an arbitration clause mean for people coming forward?
Deb: It has been a practice by many organizations to include an arbitration clause in employment agreements or as a condition of employment. In other words, if you have a claim against the company (e.g., harassment, wage discrimination, etc.) you can’t pursue that claim in court, but rather have to go through an arbitration process. The dispute is then resolved by an impartial adjudicator and is final and binding.
Some research shows that this process overwhelmingly favors employers. The recent Supreme Court ruling also prohibits class-action claims from employees with arbitration clauses – further limiting an employee’s rights and potentially incentivizing companies to add arbitration clauses. The good news is that with #MeToo, some organizations are taking steps in the right direction. Microsoft announced earlier this year that it was waiving the contractual requirement for arbitration of sexual harassment claims for its employees who are bound by it. Perhaps we will start to see other companies following similar suit.
Why is bystander training important in the workplace?
Deb: Earlier this year, I had the privilege of hearing Vice President Joe Biden speak. Among other things, he spoke about his work with sexual assault victims on campuses. Most notably, when he spoke to young women on campus about what more could be done, he found that women wanted to help give the young men on campus the skills to help them intervene when they saw something that was wrong.
The same principle should apply in the workplace. Only a small percentage of employees are harassers. But we leave the onus primarily on the victim to come forward, which is hard and scary. What bystander training can do is provide other employees who witness inappropriate behaviors with the skills and, perhaps more importantly, the permission to intervene and to elevate. When you overhear an inappropriate conversation, how can we steer it in another direction, get the employee out of the situation and/or support and encourage them to report it?”
In your own words, what can we do to change the transparency and consistency of workplace reporting?
- Don’t think that doing more of what we have been doing for the past 20 years is going to make a difference.
- Be willing to make bold changes. That will send a message to your employees, shareholders and consumers.
- The first step should be standardizing the harassment investigation procedures and tracking them. Until you do that, your organization will have no way to identify what is really going on, implement changes and measure progress.
- We need to start treating our human resources with at least the same (if not more) respect as other non-human resources. Right now, only 33% of organizations have required, consistent harassment investigation procedures. Imagine if that standard was used in other parts of our organization. When machinery is “behaving” differently from what is expected, organizations have prescriptive processes for tracking the deviation, investigating what went wrong, finding the root cause and fixing it. Not so much for when our employees deviate from the expected. We need to turn that paradigm around.
Each and every one of us has a responsibility to start changing the conversation regarding sexual assault and harassment. Let’s keep the positive change going.