United States: Insights From The Trenches: Proven Strategies To Combat Harassment In 2018 From Seyfarth Shaw At Work (SSAW)

Seyfarth Synopsis: In the last in a three-part series addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, we asked Philippe Weiss, Esq., Managing Director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, to share insights from the front lines, that can help organizations credibly and effectively ensure their company culture is respectful and not tolerant of discrimination, harassing behavior or other inappropriate workplace conduct.

Q. Based on your client and agency interactions, how have leadership and organizational mindsets changed since the rash of harassment scandals started to make national news?

A. Daily headlines detailing high-profile harassment scandals clearly have many company executives and compliance professionals talking and worried. (Our call volume at SSAW has spiked and, notably, a significant number of callers are C-Suite members, themselves.) High-level executives have sought out our attorney-trainers and asked about strategies to avoid becoming an unwitting enabler. We sense a wake-up call among many of those in key positions of power.

In-house legal and HR teams are reporting to us that they are now more fully appreciating how uncomfortable it can be for employees to confront those who cross a respect line and to report misconduct by higher-ups. Organizations realize that they need real solutions that will be impactful and help reinforce a culture of non-tolerance for harassment in the workplace.

Q. What kind of an opportunity has this created for compliance professionals? Do you and your group view the current momentum as sustainable?

A. We see a significant opportunity for compliance professionals, as organizations are now willing to invest and prioritize harassment prevention and EEO – with longer term, comprehensive, and more strategically designed initiatives. We have seen line items suddenly open-up in many annual budgets for compliance and conduct programming. Organizations are also increasingly investing in climate and employee surveys/focus groups, which (of course) must be handled delicately and skillfully – but which can also powerfully inform training and communications.

It is certainly challenging to predict the future and determine whether the current momentum is sustainable. But given the depth and breadth of the publicity and #MeToo movement and related issues being raised, we see a clear shift that shows no signs of abating.

Q. Given the apparent failure of passive and cookie-cutter training programs, what training solutions have you and others in the field found actually achieve buy-in and create meaningful behavioral change?

A. There are a number of different things companies should be considering:

From a training planning standpoint:

  • Consider your claims history, internal complaint records, climate surveys, questions and concerns raised by employees, and organizational environment industry factors in program development.
  • Ensure that policies, codes of conduct and statement of values are just where you want them, in terms of content, core messaging and design.

From a training content perspective:

  • Focus on encouraging and simplifying internal reporting; in this regard many clients are asking for more extensive skill-building around "Responding to and In-taking Complaints and Concerns" to be added into their programs;
  • Focus on "Gateway Conduct" – such as leaders dressing down subordinates, which many have seen devolving into more egregious behavior, over time;
  • Focus on encouraging and creating a "step-up" culture of bystander intervention. Clients we work with report real value in referring to bystanders in the positive – as in "Accountable Allies" or "First Responders." They have also found critical value in both championing and equipping bystanders with credible skills and simple scripts. "Accountable Allies" must be trained to:

** Spot colleagues' discomfort;

** Support colleagues, using a safe, step-up, speak-up model;

** Employ distraction and extraction strategies, as appropriate;

** Know when and how to call in reinforcements.

We have known for some time that this is all about surmounting barriers of unease and reluctance to appropriately, safely and collectively "check" those starting to cross a line of conduct/norms (including peers at the C-Suite level). That is why the simplest, most user-friendly and tailored scripts can prove surprisingly effective, when built into a larger and cohesive culture strategy.

From a training design and delivery methodology standpoint:

  • Deliver training in everyday language that emphasizes real-world skill-building and avoids "legalese;"
  • Utilize organizational policies, corporate value statements, and best practices as core aspects of the messaging;
  • Wherever possible, arrange content around a set of practical thematic core elements. Choose central concepts and mantras so that delivery is not perceived as a litany of do's and don'ts;
  • Sessions should all be engaging and fully interactive. This feature is essential. While always calibrating for an audience, the rule is: the more true interactivity, the better. (Having said that, individuals should not be singled out and "compelled" to answer questions.) Post-training surveys show that participants learn little from a "talking head" instructor. They learn and buy-in from collaborating and seeing how their colleagues respond to relevant situationals – and by building a consensus.
  • Ensure that best practices answers come from the group.
  • Keep to a minimum the use of PPTs, videos, and other relatively passive tools.
  • Because the credibility and impact of the presenter is critical for effective training, facilitators should be qualified attorney-trainers with practice and business leadership experience, who are also (importantly) entertaining and professional presenters with a recognized facility for high-energy delivery and an ability to draw-out individuals and powerfully connect their answers.

An added forward-looking defense bonus is deploying a course that has been evaluated and cited as a credible "culture changer" by federal agency-designated monitors in consent decrees. (Editor's Note – SSAW has such programs! SSAW has participated in numerous EEOC and DOJ consent decrees where the long-term impacts of various communication and training strategies targeting harassment were comprehensively – and positively – evaluated.)

Q. What additional top-down communications solutions are most effective in the current climate?

A. One common approach is an all-employee memo re-articulating the organization's commitment to respect – a "dignity-declaration" of sorts.

Beyond that, many forward-thinking organizations are employing a "wrap around" training communication cascade/approach. Like the training program itself, communication cascades should use simple terms, statements and values – the simpler, the more memorable. Communications should be delivered through as many valuable and resonant mediums as possible – from team meetings, to emails, to postings on portals, to delivery of hard copies – and should be presented in differing and creative ways, whether virtually, visually or verbally. With some forethought, organizations can calibrate the timing and variety of such communications so they impact without becoming redundant.

Of course, the most effective communication strategy is one where management at every level consistently refers to your harassment prevention and conduct training mantras and take-aways.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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