How to talk to your staff about sexual harassment

It’s on everyone’s minds. Here’s how to handle a delicate conversation in your own office.

How to talk to your staff about sexual harassment

Recently, there have been a lot of notable people—from politicians to news anchors to top-level executives—resigning or being fired after allegations of sexual harassment. It’s a national conversation, which means it’s a conversation in the workplace as well.

“It’s always been a topic that most companies find very important and significant,” says Nestor Barrero, senior counsel with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, a workplace law firm in Los Angeles. “And now it has a much higher profile.”

When you’re having the conversation in your own firm—and you should—keep these things in mind:

Your tone is crucial

As a leader in your organization, you’re a role model. Employees are watching your behavior to see if the company is taking these issues seriously.

Managers who are effective on this issue are those who speak genuinely and authentically. “They don’t go into scare tactics and they don’t go into platitudes,” says Lynne Curry, Ph.D., president of human resources consulting firm The Growth Company. “They say, ‘This is an issue of respect, and we will not have [sexual harassment] here.’”

That means committing to the message and the big picture. “Never say things like, ‘HR is making me do this,’ or kind of the eye-rolling, ‘Everybody gather round, you’ve got to do this and check the boxes,’” Barrero says. “That can’t be the attitude of managers.”

The best training probably isn’t an online slideshow

This might be a good time for a refresher course on what kinds of behaviors are problematic, what the company’s policies are, and what workers should do if they have an issue. But that doesn’t mean sending out a link to the company’s employee manual.

“More effective, in my experience, is spending time with someone, either on some kind of Skype call where you can ask questions and talk to each other, or where the person is actually on site, talking about these issues and designed for that particular workplace and environment,” Barrero says.

Barrero’s training workshops are tailored for the audience he’s speaking to and doesn’t use anecdotes and examples from a generic office. For instance, when training for television production companies, he’ll talk about a production assistant who needs a ride home, and a co-worker takes her to his car and tries to kiss her. “The next day, it’s uncomfortable, what should she do?” he says. “It’s those kinds of situations that aren’t as obvious, or start out as welcome and can devolve into something that’s unwelcome. That’s what makes the canned online training a little bit sterile.”

A language tweak might help

When everything gets described in legalese, the only way employees may know how to report inappropriate behavior is to say they were sexually harassed.

“I think it would be so much more effective and much more likely to lead to actual conversation and resolution if we taught employees to be more precise and therefore more persuasive,” says Patti Perez, a California employment attorney and VP of workplace strategy for Emtrain, an online compliance training firm. “We’ve just not given them any tools to speak in any other language.”

For instance, she sometimes advises companies to do what her company does—which is to adopt a workplace color spectrum. They assign green, yellow, orange, and red to different behaviors. “We’ve been told by some of our clients that it helps them diffuse situations without using words that might otherwise escalate the conflict,” Perez says. “To say, ‘Hey Joe, that’s yellow when you say X or Y.’”

Everything is on the record

One you’re in management, you represent the company. “So now if people come to you, they are complaining to management,” Barrero says. “They’re not just sounding off to a coworker.”

That means that if someone comes to you and tries to tell you something “off the record,” you must tell them that’s not possible. “Discourage these ‘I want to tell you something but I don’t want you to do anything’ situations,’” Barrero says. “A manager should never go down that path.” 

If you know about an issue, whether it’s in your department or not, you must let someone know, because the company is now officially on notice.

Not everyone is like you

In the end, you have no control over what people bring with them to work, in the sense of experience, culture, religion or sensitivity. And you can’t assume that everyone has the same upbringing or the same sense of humor. So, think before you speak.

“You should be managing to the reasonable person level, and not assume that because you work in a culture like entertainment, like advertising, that everyone who works with you is going to have the same sort of sensitivities,” Barrero says. “That, I think, gets people into more trouble. It’s the assumption that everybody is like you.”