What’s the Problem with Training?

Who here provides sexual harassment training for managers and employees?  Who here thinks their training prevents sexual harassment in their workplace?  Who here is confident that their managers know what to do to prevent harassment?  Who here is confident that sexual harassment could never happen in your workplace because you have a policy and you’ve trained?

Let’s be honest.  No one is confident that your workplace is 100% harassment-free simply because you have a policy and have provided training.  (Heck, if that’s how training and policies worked, we’d never have poor performance or discipline issues.)  We know that harassment can happen in spite of our policies and trainings.  We even read articles that suggest harassment training can have a negative effect the workplace.  So, should we stop training?  No.  Absolutely not.

Don’t lose hope in training.  Lose hope in bad training.  Here’s what makes training good:

It’s live. A live training invites conversation.  Conversation invites questions.  We want people to ask us questions.  It is a rare video that actually sparks conversation afterward, so if you are going to video, make sure you check in with folks after they’ve watched it or that the video includes a live (studio) audience.

It’s couched in respect. We know that harassment has a lot to do with power dynamics in the workplace and/or a lack of respect.  The training should reflect that.  I joke that harassment violates a lot of the rules we learned in Kindergarten – keep your hands to yourself, treat each other nicely, say sorry – and to a large extent that’s true.  If we treated everyone with respect, harassment wouldn’t be a problem.  Spend some time talking about respect and what that means for your workplace.  Hint:  This is the civility piece the EEOC wants.

It’s customized to the workplace. Managers and employees need to see themselves in the scenarios posed by the training.  It is important that the training be relatable enough that it makes people feel uncomfortable.  We learn in the uncomfortable.  A manufacturing facility needs a factory line example.  Software companies need software development examples.  A bank needs banking examples.  A retail establishment has an employee-customer example.  I can’t stress enough how important this is.  For hospitality clients, I’m using this video.

We play a game from my favorite podcast where the audience or I can stop the video at any point and talk about what we saw.  This video is so great because it has a gradual increase in severity until the big incident.  It sparks a lot of conversation – great conversation.

The trainer asks questions. What would you do if you saw this?  Would you step in?  Do you have to?  What does the company want you to do?  What if this happened to you?  These are the kinds of bystander questions that the EEOC wants to see in harassment training.  Even if the audience is hesitant to raise their hands, they are answering in their heads and waiting to see what someone else might say.  I’m happy with answering in your head because you’re answering.  If the audience can see themselves in the scenario and are asked what they would do, they’ll remember that feeling when they’re actually in a situation.

Acknowledge the fear. There is a lot of fear about harassment.  Men are afraid to compliment a female co-worker on her dress.  Companies are banning hugging.  A good trainer will tackle this fear head-on, explaining there’s a difference between “you look nice today” and “hey baby, that dress hugs you in all the right ways.”  Spending time talking about the fear and how to handle it can make people feel more comfortable with their own conduct and be more willing to talk to each other.

Folks learn who to talk to. We don’t need the audience to remember the ins and outs of harassment law – we only need them to remember what is problematic and who to talk to.  They need to know that HR is here to listen to them and if they’re uncomfortable with reporting the situation to HR, they can talk to any manager.  So, HR (and a member of upper management) should be there so the trainer can point to them.  “These are the people who will drop everything if you walk into their office with a concern about harassment.”  Employees and managers need to know they are not alone with this, and the organization really, really wants to hear from them.

Training cannot be the only thing an organization does to prevent harassment.  It takes a culture where employees trust managers and feel comfortable talking about these issues without fear of losing their jobs.  That takes much more than training.  But, training is an important piece of this.

I am doing a great deal of harassment training these days in response to #MeToo and #TimesUp.  While I wish these movements did not have to exist, I’m happy organizations are spending the time and resources to do the training.  Consider it for yours.


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Chatbots Listening

Yesterday, chatbots chatted with our employees at our own behest. HR bought, paid for, and implemented the chatbots.  Today, we’re going to chat about chatbots that listen even when they are not our chatbot but it is our business.

We’ve learned the unfortunate statistics that seven out of ten harassment instances do not get reported.  Employees fear for their jobs, they don’t want to be “that” person who upsets the apple cart, or they simply don’t know that what happened to them violates an employee handbook or who to talk to about it.  There’s one more reason though.  According to this Recode article and the overall theme of most harassment news reporting, employees don’t trust us.  However, they’re willing to trust a chatbot.

SpotSpot allows employees to go through a bunch of questions about potential harassment, develop a report, make it anonymous, and then submit the conversation report to the company (if the chatter wants to).  The chatbot helps potential reporters organize their thoughts, think about other evidence that might exist to help show something inappropriate happened, and it can show them that they can have this conversation with their organization, bolstering their confidence. These are all good things.  And, things that will be ultimately good for the organization.

But the bot also can give the employee the impression that by conversing with the bot, their job is done, they won’t have to deal with this directly.  This impression is wrong, very wrong.

Humans have to be involved.  If (and when) a report gets sent to the company, we have to do something.  Most often, we launch an investigation.  We talk with the individuals involved, including the reporter.  We look for other evidence, review policies, and then take action if necessary.   Failure to do something could mean liability.

Moreover, anonymous reporting doesn’t mean that the reporter isn’t going to have to talk to someone.  Even if a Spot user scrubs the report to make it more anonymous, we have an obligation to figure out who is reporting and how can we stop any bad behavior.  We might not know who or even what department, but HR has to ferret out the information based on what little information we have.  Failure to do so could mean liability.

For HR, we must accept complaints from employees in any and every way they come to us.  We will get anonymous reports through chatbots like Spot.  We will hear from the water cooler gossip mill.  We may see a negative post on Glassdoor or Indeed.  We will have employees come to our office.  We will get hotline calls.  In any and every instance, we have an obligation to do something.  Our first priority to make safe, respectful workplaces for our employees.  So, we listen.  Please listen.


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Chatbots Chatting

If you use the internet, you’ve used a chatbot.  It’s quite possible you didn’t even know that you were.  Chatbots are cool – using one is like texting a new friend without emojis.  (My favorite is the Resistbot.)  As HR professionals, we see chatbots in recruiting, onboarding, and employee relations.  Chatbots offer quick, easy conversations with candidates and employees to help ease the burdens of busy HR folk.  Yet, as chatbots become increasingly easy to implement and cheaper, we should be careful of the risks.


Picking Up Issues

ChatbotLast year, I attended a vendor demonstration of a chatbot.  The demonstration was “live” so we’d know that the chatbot’s conversation was not canned.  The sales guy (and I intentionally say “sales guy” as he clearly had never worked in HR before) asked his Watson-based chatbot the following question, “How much time is available to take a leave?”  The answer from the bot, “Hannah, you have 72 hours (9 days) of PTO…”  Let that ruminate in your brain for a second.


Two of us in the audience immediately raised our hands.  “That’s not the right answer to that question,” we said in near unison.  Why not?  Because PTO is not leave and leave is not PTO.  The term “leave” brings up things like FMLA, pregnancy, and reasonable accommodations.  While PTO can be used during FMLA or leave when it is an accommodation, PTO is not a substitute for legally required leave.  The right answer would have been, “How do you intend to use leave?”  The use of leave would give an indication of whether FMLA or ADA will come into play.  If Hannah said “I’m pregnant” then the chatbot could say she could have 12 weeks available under the FMLA.  Twelve weeks is significantly more than 9 days.

A human in HR would probably be able to identify an issue whether the chat came from a potential applicant, seasonal employee, or a team member.  HR and recruiting professionals know that certain words when uttered by employees trigger certain laws.  Unfortunately for chatbot vendors, the list isn’t well defined or kept somewhere so that they can feed it into their bot and the bot will then know as much as a human.  Knowing all the words also means knowing employees, their situations and needs.  Until chatbots get really human-like, they will miss issues, including things like requests for reasonable accommodations, reports of harassment, or work injury issues.  (Imagine someone chats about a boss who grabbed a breast.  How will a chatbot respond to that?)

Why is this Important?

If anyone misses a legal issue – like Hannah’s leave issue – the clock starts ticking under the law.  If Hannah’s question about leave availability related to a pregnancy, she could now believe her company will only give her 9 days off for the birth of her child.  While we’d hope Hannah would reach out to an HR human, she might not.  She might think she can only take off two weeks and would be expected to return to work.  This could spark her to leave us, tell her friends how bad we are as employers, or even start a lawsuit once she learned of the FMLA.  This chat and the lack of follow-up could be a violation of the FMLA or state pregnancy leave laws.

The other reason this is particularly important is that there is a record of what the chatbot said.  Most chatbot conversations are recorded.  So, if Hannah meets a plaintiff’s attorney, her attorney will be able to request a record of her conversation with the bot.  Her attorney would be able to tell the date and time of Hannah’s question and (potentially) the lack of follow-through from the company to deal with Hannah’s question and request.  This is great evidence.

If Your Gonna Use a Bot…

While there are risks, good things exist in chatbots too.  “How much PTO do I have?” or “How do I get my paystub?” are great questions chatbots can answer without interrupting an HR pro’s day. This is why chatbots are hugely useful.  So, if you’re going to take advantage of this significant benefit, here’s what I recommend:

  • Have someone read through the chat records. You might find trends that will help develop training or modify your practices or even onboarding to help ease questions.  You’ll also pick up on the leave/FMLA issue described above.  Reading chats takes significantly less time than engaging in the conversations themselves, so please do it.
  • Talk with your vendor about compliance issues. Ask how would the chatbot respond to words like “leave,” “sick,” “boob,” and “hostile.”  These are just some of the big issues, and if the vendor stumbles here, move on to the next one.
  • Test the chatbot on these compliance issues. Pretend you’re going be an employee.  Test how the bot will work.  Your own interaction will help determine the ease of the chatbot and whether you want employees interacting with it.
  • Ask your vendor to do compliance issue updates. We get to hold vendors accountable only if we hold them accountable.  So, seriously, ask for compliance whether it is a new HCM or a chatbot.

We are all going to use more and more chatbots in HR and everywhere else.  We have to be careful as this is another way we talk to employees.  When we are not mindful of our conversations with employees, we fail.


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Some of Us Hear You

It’s February, Black History Month, and the return of #BlackBlogsMatter.  I love this time of the year – not only because we champion the contributions of African Americans, but because this is a great opportunity for some of us to challenge our thinking, our perspectives, and quite frankly, our privilege.

This is hard.  Many people believe that our country gives everyone the chance to succeed.  The point to the “self-made” folk like Oprah, Jay-Z, or Robert Johnson as people who have made it.  However, when we point to these wildly successful people, we are also suggesting that those who haven’t made it just haven’t worked hard enough.  This is a problem – maybe even the problem with pushing the “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” American narrative.  Our society and our workplaces have been built on this narrative with built-in advantages for white people (particularly white men).

Here are some ways we may be perpetuating the privilege:

  • We recruit from our networks, begging our current employees to mine their LinkedIn and Facebook networks to find our next great hire. However, there’s overwhelming evidence that we flock to people who look like us, creating networks without a great deal of diversity.
  • We recruit from educational institutions we or one of our friends graduated from. While some have made great strides, white folk still take up a greater percentage of college graduates.
  • Unconscious bias affects our hiring and promotions. We have started doing blind hiring, which can help, but we cannot hold this technique as the end-all, be-all that solves the problem.
  • We avoid having discussions of race. While our avoidance makes for a great SNL skit, our avoidance only allows the problem to continue to fester.

We have to be more proactive, more intentional with how we build workplaces that accurately reflect the world around us with the diversity of race, age, religion, gender, thought, etc.  If we don’t, we’re missing out.  Missing out on better decision-making, better business, and a better place for everyone.  This means taking a hard look at our current practices, having hard discussions, and confronting the problems whether we intentionally created them or not.  We can’t simply watch the documentaries, revise policies, or give lip service to our desire to build more inclusive workplaces.  We actually have to self-reflect as organizations and individuals even though the guilt seizes us with paralysis.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here.  I do know that the best way to start is by listening to those voices we haven’t been very good about listening to and then lending our voices to help.  In a recent blog post, Jazmine Wilkes (a member of the #HRTribe) lamented the lack of white voices speaking up to combat the ongoing prejudice and injustice facing so many.  To Jazmine, Sarah, Keirsten, Tamara, Janine, Rachel, and all the folks writing this month for #BlackBlogsMatter, I hear you and here’s my voice.


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Why Help An Employee?

I’m a management-side employment law attorney.  I get to work with human resources. In fact, I am an HR professional.  So, why on God’s green Earth would I, as an attorney, help an employee?

HR has been taking a huge hit lately.  The #MeToo movement and the countless stories of rampant sexual harassment are now (thankfully) part of the national conversation.  The reoccurring theme has been “Where was HR?” or “Why didn’t HR do something?”  While that criticism in some circumstances may be fair, HR is a bit like the CIA.  We only hear about the bad things HR does (or doesn’t do), and we rarely hear about all the good HR pros out there who have steeled themselves and done what is right.  I’m lucky to know many of them.

When an HR pro doesn’t do the right thing – especially when they are given the chance repeatedly – there comes a time when the friendly neighborhood employment attorney has to challenge that particular HR department.  I do this because we need good HR.  When bad HR hurts one of us, it hurts all of us.  So, it is up to us to take us on, to speak up and help those employees who have done everything in their power, given their employers every opportunity to do the right thing and yet have had the door to HR (and management) closed to them.

I’m lucky to currently represent an employee.  You can hear her story here.  It may be a fair criticism that as a management-side attorney, I shouldn’t represent her.  To me, I should.  Because if I’m going to help HR do better, sometimes that means I have to take us on when we’ve done wrong.


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Priorities, Priorities

On Tuesday, The New York Times published an article – complete with advice – about the office fridge.  Give employees only a specific amount of space in the refrigerator, ban certain foods, if an employee violates the rules, take fridge privileges away.  Seriously, this was the advice listed in the article.  Don’t we have bigger things to worry about?

Yes.  Yes, we do.  We’ve got a national harassment issue.  We have new laws.  We have super low unemployment so recruiting is tough.  Technology driving head-long into our work lives.  Employees are facing more challenges both at work and at home affecting their abilities to get their jobs done.  All of these issues are more important than the office refrigerator.

Not gonna lie, the focus on the fridge irks me.  We have bigger fish to fry.  Yet, it is human nature to find the “easier” issue that can be solved.  Fixing the fridge shows immediate results, whereas growing a positive culture takes significantly more time and isn’t easily measured.  I get it.

The same is true with Mitchell Hamline’s HR Compliance Certificate Program.  I’m honored to be an adjunct professor in the program and one of the authors of the case study used in the program.  My teaching partner, Ali McGinty, and I added a kegerator to our fictional workplace that is rife with compliance issues.  The workplace has no affirmative action program despite having a large Department of Defense contract, potential wage disparities, misclassification issues, recruitment issues, employment agreement issues, outsourcing problems, etc.  Yet, so many of students jump on the kegerator as the first problem they would solve.  I’m taking aback each time.  It surprises me as I assume that employers hire who they think are responsible adults, yet we want to remove alcohol every time we see it.  But when I look at all the other issues plaguing our fictional software company, I see that kegerator is easy and immediate.

I’ve got a challenge for you.  Write down the issues you want to tackle.  Ask some managers and some employees about what they think you should focus on.  Consider each issue carefully.  What will take you more time?  What will take more effort or resources?  How will you know if issues have been resolved?  Once you have a list, ask your leadership where they want you to spend your time.  Then, prioritize the list.  Here are some priorities I recommend – priorities more important than the fridge:

  • Renewing a commitment to effective training on the perils of harassment and discrimination
  • Revising employee handbooks that reflect new laws
  • Training managers on basic management skills like having difficult conversations with employees
  • Implementing effective performance management systems

HR guru (and my friend), Kelly Marinelli, recently tweeted that audacity is her word for 2018.  YES!  We need to have the audacity to take on the biggest challenges facing our organizations.  That probably does not include the office fridge.


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