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Harassment Keeping Your Name Out of the News (Part 1)

BY LIN GRENSING-POPHAL

With claims of sexual harassment being levied against prominent figures in Hollywood, sports and industry, community banks are wise to ensure that they’re taking proactive steps to keep harassment out of their workplace, communicating effectively so all understand what harassment entails and how to report infractions, and responding quickly and appropriate to any allegations. What steps should you be taking, proactively, to avoid these claims? Input from HR and legal experts.

The Basics

Christopher W. Smithmyer, is a lawyer and strategic resource development coordinator at Brãv Online Conflict Management, a dispute resolution company. “The #MeToo movement is a result of bad social design for the last hundred or so years,” says Smithmyer. “Companies found it easier to hide instances of sexual abuse—as evidence in the Weinstein case and the Congressional slush fund—rather than deal with the problem. While the media is wringing their hands with the ‘what do we do’ mentality, the solution is quite simple. Have good corporate practices.” Those practices, says Smithmyer, should include:

  • Training to define what sexual harassment is within your corporate environment.
  • An HR person designated to deal with sexual harassment claims, with backup individuals to serve in this role if one of these people is the accused.
  • Dealing with any claims quickly and openly. Without naming the party, Smithmyer says, a statement at a meeting such as “We have had a claim of sexual harassment and this is how we are dealing with it,” can serve to empower others to come forward rather than staying silent.
  • Consider using a third party—e.g. conflict management service, or attorney—to deal with any claims.

Nance L. Schick is an employment attorney, arbitrator and mediator, and has also personally sued a prior employer for sexual harassment. It’s not enough just to have a policy, or to conduct training once a year, says Schick. “You will be more effective if you help employees identify sexual harassment and what causes it, how to report it, investigate it and take appropriate disciplinary action.”

16Zero Tolerance: We Mean It!

Taking a strong stance against harassment is important and sends a message, loud and clear, about the community bank’s commitment to a harassment-free work environment. “We advise community banks to implement zero tolerance anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, which are adhered to in all circumstances,” says Kimberly Capadona, a partner at Archer, and advises clients on employment law and labor relations issues. These policies, she says, should be distributed to all employees through email, or hard copy—and employees should be asked to sign an acknowledge that the policy and received and reviewed.

In addition, Capadona says, “we suggest that community banks conduct anti-harassment and sensitivity training for all management and staff.” This, she says, should be done upon hire and annually thereafter.

But communication should be ongoing to ensure that employees understand both expectations and how to report any issues. Policies should clearly indicate who employees should turn to if they need to report a complaint; there should be more than one option. For instance, reports could be made to a supervisor or manager, the HR department or a specific VP or senior-level executive. Having options can prevent situations where employees fail to report because the individual they’re expected to report to is the harasser. Policies should also clearly prohibit any form of retaliation against employees who make a complaint, Capadona advises.

Most importantly, employers must act—and act quickly and consistently—whenever incidents of harassment are observed or reported. “When employees observe that their employer is tough on harassers, employees are less likely to engage in such unlawful conduct,” says Capadona.

There is a balance to be struck, though, in terms of making it clear that the company takes such situations seriously, and violating the privacy of those involved.

“Internally, I recommend that you limit discussions of the investigation while it is ongoing,” says Schick. “Keep the knowledgeable parties to a minimum. Defer to the investigators to determine whether there was sexual harassment. Work closely with your legal counsel when developing an action plan, regardless of whether harassment was confirmed. There will be relationships to repair and monitor, no matter what happens next, and the more objectively you can manage those relationships, the better your entire workforce will deal with the incident.”

Afraid to Speak

While the #MeToo movement has certainly directed attention to the issue of harassment, it’s not a new issue, says Hosage. “Even before the #MeToo movement, the legal standard for an employer has been quick and remedial action when it comes to addressing any form of unlawful harassment in the workplace.”

Unfortunately, not all employers have followed that legal standard—some purposefully and others because they were unaware that incidents had occurred.

Keep in mind, though, that “the absence of a formal complaint is not an excuse for failure to act,” says Susan Hosage, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, a senior consultant and executive coach with OneSource HR Solutions. Individuals who feel victimized don’t always report, she says. That can happen for many reasons, including fear of retaliatory action. Still, the community bank is on the hook for ensuring an environment free from harassment. Even if an employee doesn’t report a situation, the back “will be held to the legal standard of whether they ‘could or should have known about the existence of a harassing environment’,” says Hosage.

Research supports the need to ensure that many eyes and ears are alert to the potential of harassment. In November 2017, Fairygodboss surveyed 500 women about harassment in the workplace. While 56.2 percent indicated that they had been sexually harassed at work at some point in their careers, 66.7 percent said that they did not report the situation to a manager, HR or law enforcement. SHRM research puts the number of non-reporting victims of harassment at even higher levels—76 percent according to research conducted in January 2018.

In this case, for community banks, what you don’t know could hurt you. Ensuring an environment where employees both understand what constitutes harassment and feel free to report incidents that occur, are important steps to take to create a non-hostile work environment.

Fear of retribution, though, isn’t the only thing keeping employees from coming forward. Fairygodboss’s research indicated that the top reason (52.2 percent) was that employees “didn’t want to create a fuss/look like a trouble-maker/get a bad reputation.” Next highest, at 34.1 percent was feeling that nothing would happen if they did report and, coming in third, was fear of retribution (at 27.5 percent).

Harassment From Customers

Employees, of course, are not always the only potential offenders.

“The biggest challenge for a community bank is when the offender is a customer,” says Susan Hosage, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, a senior consultant and executive coach with OneSource HR Solutions.

It’s a situation that any customer-facing organization faces; community banks are not immune. If an employee is harassed by a customer, says Hosage, the bank must address the situation. “An initial private conversation with the customer may be all that is necessary to end the unwelcome conduct,” she says. But, if the behavior continues, “it may be necessary to end the professional relationship.” Not an easy thing to do, but a necessary one, says Hosage. “The obligation for the community bank as an employer supersedes any business objective it may have to retain that customer,” she says. “Financial consequences for the bank that may arise from an employee who was repeatedly subjected to the harassing behavior by a customer would likely to be far greater than any revenue that would result from his or her business.”

It’s important for employers to seek legal counsel when dealing with harassment issues, Schick stresses. “If community banks require advice regarding specific instances, I recommend that they consult an employment attorney with experience in sexual harassment in the state where they operate.”

The bottom line: “The best way to show the bank’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace is to maintain a harassment-free workforce and environment,” says Hosage. It’s a message that banks—and other businesses around the country—are getting loud and clear.

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