In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the modern workplace requires more respect, greater transparency and quicker action to avoid unsavory headlines and costly litigation. Allegations of impropriety can quickly spread via social media (and traditional media for high profile employers) such that even the mere possibility that something happened is enough to harm an employer.
Here are the five things that EVERY employer should be doing to create a work environment designed to foster respect and minimize risk.
1. Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk
Employers should communicate through both words and deeds that a respectful workplace is required. While not an actual legal requirement, a respectful workplace is what employees are now actively seeking and represents the positive alternative to the “hostile work environment” that anti-harassment policies try to prevent.
Creating a respectful workplace starts with leadership, who must not only articulate the requirement but also role-model the behavior that is expected. When leadership treats employees with respect, employees will better understand that they are required to do the same.
2. Follow Your Clear Discrimination, Harassment, and Respectful Workplace Policies, Including a Complaint Procedure
Everyone thinks their discrimination and harassment policies are clear and effective, but are they? Do they clearly articulate what behavior is not tolerated? Do they tell employees who to go to if they have a complaint (and identify multiple different avenues to pursue)? Do they explain the investigatory process, including non-retaliation provisions?
The most effective way to address and resolve complaints efficiently is to maintain a clear policy and a well-defined process that employees can follow. Then, be sure to follow the policy once it is invoked – it can be as problematic not to follow your written policy as it is not to have a policy at all. Maintaining and following your policies not only may resolve the complaint, but can also help insulate the employer from liability in any subsequent lawsuit.
And, again, consider implementing a respectful workplace policy. Instead of just insuring legal compliance, be the employer that sets forth a true vison of what a positive and civil work environment should be.
3. Regularly Train Your Employees On Your Policies and Complaint Procedure
If employees never see the policy or do not understand it, it will not be effective and your efforts to foster a respectful workplace will be undermined. New employees should be trained on both your policy and complaint procedure. Every current employee should get training at least once every two years (some states now require such training, and at least one requires annual training).
When conducting the training, have employees sign in so you can show later on that they attended. And, don’t be concerned if you receive complaints about disrespectful behavior after the training—this means that the training worked!
4. Investigate Any Complaint
Do not try to sort out which complaints should be investigated and which need not be. If an employee makes a complaint—investigate. Sometimes employees don’t know how to accurately label what they have been experiencing, but a review of the circumstances reveals that the employee is actually raising a valid discrimination concern.
In addition, even if the complaint seems trivial, telling the employee that their concerns are not worth the effort to explore seems to convey a lack of respect that runs counter to the employer’s messaging. While an exhaustive and multi-faceted inquiry is not required for every complaint, each employee concern merits an appropriate amount of consideration and a respectful response.
5. Take Action On Complaints
If the investigation uncovers wrongdoing, take action to address the behavior and protect against any repeat in the future. If an investigation does not substantiate the allegation, that does not necessarily mean that the alleged behavior did not occur. Perhaps it did happen but it just could not be proved this time. In such cases, consider what you can do to still validate the employee’s concern and protect against the possibility that offending behavior might still occur in the future.
Finally, always follow up in the days, weeks and months following the investigation. An employee will feel respected and appreciated if you show that you care that the solutions you came up with were effective and that the work environment is more comfortable now that the complaint has been addressed.
Employees take their cues from leadership. An employer that sets clear expectations for respectful behavior and then adheres to those rules from the top down will greatly improve the odds of staying out of the headlines and out of court.