Companies Keep Mishandling Harassment

Published by Industry Today

Here is why companies keep failing when it comes to workplace harassment and critical mistakes leaders make when confronted with claims.

Let’s observe managers in action to see how they handle tough workplace conversations.

Our study reveals new and surprising data about the mistakes managers are making when confronted with bad workplace behaviors.  

According to data from Ethisphere and EVERFI, approximately 70 percent of all complaints are made to managers as opposed to the HR or Legal teams. Our simulations show managers lack many of the critical skills needed to handle these conversations effectively, exposing the company to substantial liability. Ultimately, they are unknowingly contributing to an overall culture that is plagued with systemic misconduct, bias, and ineffective remediation.

Thirty-nine percent did not ask questions to identify witnesses to the alleged incident. Twenty-five percent did not explain to the employees that the situation will be escalated to HR. Fifty-six percent did not discuss retaliation with complainant, witnesses, or the alleged perpetrator. Fifty-six percent did not explain the company has an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy. Forty-one percent did not ask questions, repeat key facts and clarify critical details of the alleged incident. Thirty percent did not explain next steps to the complainant, witnesses or the alleged perpetrator.

The simulations revealed that managers often fail to identify other employees who may have witnessed the alleged workplace incident and who may be able to provide context and substantiate the claims of the complainant.

Identifying potential witnesses to a workplace incident is one of the most important questions one can ask during the intake process. Too many managers neglect to do so.

A surprising number of managers consistently neglected to identify other individuals who may have witnessed potentially inappropriate behavior in the workplace. When a manager is approached by an employee with a complaint, one of the first questions they should ask is “…was anyone else there who may have seen this take place?” This is particularly important given the ‘he said, she said’ nature of many of these incidents. That said, witnesses to workplace issues are often reluctant to come forward and share their account of events given a common fear of retaliation.

It is critical that witnesses be identified and that they be provided with strong assurances that there will be no retaliation for their participation in an investigation. If you want to empower bystanders to share what they have observed, it is important that they feel safe to do so. Clearly communicating that retaliation will not be tolerated is a good step. Just as importantly, however, is a public communication from all of the senior managers of your organization that harassment, bias, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated under any circumstance. This will give witnesses even more comfort about coming forward.

More than a third of managers failed to inquire if the complainant was aware of anyone else who had witnessed the alleged workplace incident.

It is certainly not the manager’s responsibility to investigate a claim, but they should gather the basic information that the HR or legal teams will need to determine if a full investigation will be necessary.

During stressful workplace conversations, important facts like names, dates, times, and places can be forgotten or mistaken in the moment. It is important for the managers handling these conversations to ask questions when necessary, to repeat key facts and to clarify anything that may not be completely clear. This will improve the quality of intake and make it much easier for the HR or Legal team to move forward.

Thirty percent of managers did not communicate specific next steps to employees struggling with difficult workplace challenges.

A surprising percentage of the managers concluded their simulated conversations with complainants, witnesses, and alleged perpetrators without explaining the process or communicating clear next steps. Approaching a manager to discuss a difficult workplace situation is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things that an employee can do. It takes courage and conviction to broach these sorts of topics with people who are in a position of authority. Given this dynamic, there are several things that a manager must do in response. First, they should be empathetic and an active listener, allowing the employee to express their views and details of the situation they have concerns about. Just as importantly, however, is providing the employee with comfort and assurance that they are being heard and that the situation will be addressed promptly and effectively.

The best way to provide this assurance to the employee, be they a complainant, witness or alleged perpetrator, is to explain in detail what steps will be taken once the conversation is over. This does not mean that the manager needs to provide all of the details of how an investigation will be conducted. They will likely lack that knowledge — and that’s fine.

That said, they should explain to the employee that they have taken notes on the conversation and that they are going to share that information with an HR Partner. That individual will then contact the employee to follow-up, ask additional questions and explain in more detail what will happen next. It is also important for the manager to explain to the employee the specific timeline (i.e. “I will call Jessica as soon as we’re done and I will ask that she contact you this afternoon.”)  The more detail they can provide, the more comfort the employee will have that the situation will be taken seriously.

With the groundswell in attention and concern around harassment, bias, discrimination, and bullying,  organizations across the country are being challenged to make real and lasting changes to their prevention programs. There is growing fatigue and skepticism around traditional training approaches that in many cases have failed to make a difference.  This data confirms statistical evidence that live, virtual simulations offer a better way to both identify skill gaps and materially improve a manager’s ability to handle complaints.