Sexual harassment: How HR can help develop a culture of respect

Sexual harassment has been brought to the forefront of employers' attention in recent months, following the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Time's Up campaign. But impersonal investigations can sometimes put victims off raising a complaint. Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of JourneyHR, suggests how HR can better investigate such sensitive situations - and prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Harassment in the workplace can be a difficult issue to handle, even for the most experienced managers. After all, it's not just about responding to harassment claims: businesses need to create an environment that doesn't allow it to occur in the first place.

When it comes to raising harassment claims, one of the most common barriers is the formal process adopted when a claim is investigated. Most companies have a friendly and informal environment during a normal working day, so when sexual harassment concerns are raised, it can often feel strange to suddenly follow a regulated process when employees are more used to a natural working environment. This can be a real challenge for HR.

All too often workers stop pursuing a harassment claim after seeing the employer's formal response to the situation. As challenging as it can be, making sure HR is supporting this official process with friendly, encouraging communication will ensure any issues continue to be pursued.

Setting up a network of harassment support advisers who have been trained to deal with such scenarios can be a suitable approach. Such advisers can be the first, informal, point of contact for those who need to flag an issue.

Getting the process right

If investigations are caught up in a complicated process, employees can feel embarrassed or betrayed if the situation has not been resolved quickly. Employers need to keep people in the loop, reminding them how far along the investigation is and reassuring them that things are being managed. Even when there are delays, assurances that the case is still being handled will go a long way towards winning their trust.

Other staff might be called on to provide a witness statement. Because witnesses are usually outside the rest of the process, they have a tendency to forget the need for privacy while the investigation continues and rumours can start if this is not handled carefully. Everyone involved in the investigation needs to understand the need for confidentiality until a verdict is reached. Should even the smallest hint about the allegations escape, the wider business risks falling victim to hearsay.

Once the investigation has been concluded, some details will inevitably become public knowledge. It's here that employers need to decide how much information they share, based on everything from the event itself, to company size and office culture.

A culture of mutual respect

Businesses should work hard to prevent harassment from happening in the first place, and this starts with culture. Although it can be a hard one to address, there are ways businesses can create a culture of mutual respect.

For example, having leaders acting as role models is essential because change is usually driven from the top down. Creating clear standards on what is considered unacceptable behaviour will make a big difference. If leaders show respect to the most junior staff, others will follow.

Boundaries should also be set and policies should include the steps the organisation will take, grievance procedures and a timescale for action.

Most importantly, managers need to play an active role in enforcing these rules. They need to have conversations with employees about the organisation's values, be aware of team dynamics and ready to step in if staff act inappropriately.

Organisations should consider training all employees, from the most senior executives to new recruits. The training should identify which behaviours show respect, while also teaching teams how to deal with employees behaving badly.

Dealing with harassment is not an easy task, so businesses should strive to prevent such situations happening at all. Clarity and efficiency will help with an investigation, but if the business does not promote respect and collaboration, it risks incidents of harassment becoming the norm.