Thanks to the bombshell reports against Hollywood execs and politicians, the floodgates have been opened for public outcry against inappropriate unwanted behavior. However, many employees in a regular office environment are unaware that there are actually Federal standards that protect employees against sexual harassment and hostile work environments. Whether an office has five employees or 500, all companies are supposed to comply with these laws. Because these practices are not always enforced, it is important for employees to feel empowered to report behaviors that make them feel uncomfortable.
Personal Space caught up with Human Resources expert, Kimberly Saunders, to get tips on how to make HR more approachable and how to create an environment where employees are not afraid to speak up against different kinds of harassment. Kimberly has been in the field for 23 years and is currently VP of Talent and Culture at a Silicon Valley based tech startup.
Personal Space: How do you talk to employees about appropriate behaviors and what not to do in the workplace?
Kimberly Saunders: Building an environment that is free from harassment and discrimination is one of the most important functions of an HR department. In the state of California, for example, it is mandatory for Managers to receive a minimum of two hours of training on anti-harassment/anti-discrimination practices. I find it very valuable to ensure all employees are aware of these laws and practices, so that there is an open dialogue on issues they might not have thought about before receiving training.
PS: How do you encourage women and/ or men to speak up, since so few report it, or don’t report it for a long time?
KS: In today's climate, it is of great importance to remind all employees about not just the law, but internal policies you have in place to protect your employees. Trust in the HR team is the number one way that we can help people come forward immediately, without fear of retaliation or of being ignored. Companies need to make HR approachable and empower them to take action even when the person called to the mat is above them in the org chart. The department should take all complaints seriously and make sure the employees know that HR is there to support them, not simply to protect the company. Another way to encourage employees to speak up is by simplifying the reporting procedures, which can make it easier to disclose if a situation makes them uncomfortable. They can hold town-halls to address what is in the news and work with employees on best practices. Companies can also build "buddy-teams" for monthly check-ins to discuss strategies that can be implemented to ensure a workplace free of harassment and discrimination.
PS: If someone thinks their boss or coworker is crossing the line, should they say something to them first?
KS: I usually advise to go to HR first, especially if it is their supervisor. Employees seem to be more comfortable getting advice on how they might handle the situation, and then approaching the person to have a discussion. This also means HR has documentation of the situation, should it escalate. The hope is that with the right "tools" in hand, employees can say what needs to be said without additional assistance. This empowers employees to stand up if something makes them uncomfortable.
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