5 things to do NOW to deal with Sexual Harassment Compliance Challenges

Two years ago, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was the silence-breakers of the #MeToo movement.  In late 2018, in response to the movement, many U.S. state laws came into force requiring sexual harassment training and policies for employers.  For instance, in New York, most employers are now required to implement an anti-harassment policy as well as delivering “interactive” anti-harassment training.

The public, regulator, and shareholder expectations for companies are sky-high when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual harassment.  What can you do to protect your company in 2019?  Start with these five actions.

1.     Define Who is in Charge

In most companies, sexual harassment complaints are dealt with by the human resources team.  However, the new laws are mandating policies and training – frequently topics owned by compliance.  Additionally, investigations into whistle-blower complaints relating to sexual harassment may fall into the murky area between HR and compliance.

Get ahead of the problem by defining roles.  Pro-actively talk to HR, as well as to your investigations team (if you have a separate function) so that it is clear who is in charge of which actions.  Like data privacy or modern slavery, the response to this compliance risk can’t live just in the compliance department.  A multi-functional approach is best, so get people together and make a plan.

2.     Add Questions to Your Engagement Survey

Most large companies have an annual engagement survey and/or a compliance and ethics survey at the company.  Be sure that this year’s survey includes a question about whether the respondent has ever (1) been a victim of sexual harassment or (2) seen sexual harassment during their time working at the company.  If the answer is yes, ensure there is a follow-up question asking whether they reported the incident, and if not, why not.  Getting this information is crucial so that you can respond appropriately. 

Asking these questions will also give you a baseline from which to measure your program each year to gauge its effectiveness in preventing and dealing with sexual harassment incidents and complaints.

3.     Formally Involve the Board on the Topic

It is irresponsible for boards not to take up the topic of sexual harassment at the company.  However, it can often be difficult to get good metrics around the issue.  Begin reporting to the board about this culture-related issue.  You can report:

  • Number of whistle-blower complaints received regarding sexual harassment

  • Number of days the average investigation took to resolve sexual harassment complaints

  • Number of people who received sexual harassment training

  • Number of times people accessed the anti-harassment policy on the intranet

You can also request that the board formally approve and endorse the anti-harassment policy.

4.     Plan to Give Bystander Training

One of the biggest challenges relating to sexual harassment is bystander accountability.  People witnessing sexual harassment often avert their eyes or try to ignore it.  It’s easy not to want to get involved or to call out someone on their behavior if it would make a scene.  However, one of the strongest barometers of culture is the way people react to unacceptable behavior.  

 

The best way to rectify the problem of bystander inaction is by giving your employees tools to respond to inappropriate activities via training.  Teach them how to speak up, whether directly to the person acting against policy, reporting the infraction to a manager, or contacting the whistle-blower hotline.  There are creative ways of doing this, best exemplified by the spoken-word video that ReThink Compliance did on this topic.  You can view it HERE.

5.      Do a Search

The laws requiring training and/or policies have come into force in at least California, Virginia, Delaware, and New York.  Ask your legal team or outside counsel to check to ensure that your company doesn’t have new obligations because of the new laws that have come into force.  You don’t want to be caught unaware and out of compliance.

Preventing and dealing with sexual harassment is a challenge facing nearly every company in the world.  By implementing these five simple steps, you and your team can be part of the solution this year.