Pens & Company Ink

Recently, I gave a presentation on sexual harassment to a group of compliance professionals from some of the largest organizations in the Midwest.  At one point, an audience member called me a Sexual McCarthyist because I said CEOs shouldn’t have relationships – even consensual ones – with anyone in the company.  Given the news out of Chicago on Sunday, let’s go over why.

When a CEO engages in sexual harassment, the organization is vicariously liable for the conduct  Citing U.S. Supreme Court case Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275, 2284 (1998), here’s what the EEOC’s Guidance says:

An employer is liable for unlawful harassment whenever the harasser is of a sufficiently high rank to fall “within that class . . . who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”

The Guidance goes further and lists individuals who could be considered an organization’s proxy, including president, owner, partner, and corporate officer – like a CEO.  Vicarious liability means the organization has no defense to a harassment claim and is automatically liable if the conduct was indeed harassment.

So, was the conduct harassment?  Well, let me take all of your hopeless romantic hearts and crush them.  Relationships fail at a remarkable rate.  Think of all the people you have to date before you find “the one” and then “the one” has a better-than-fair chance of ending in divorce.

Now, imagine you’re a CEO.  You have a significant amount of authority over everyone in your organization.  You start flirting with an employee.  The employee may feel that they don’t have the option to say no to a couple of dates.  Things start to heat up, but something is not right.  The employee feels they can’t break up for fear of losing their job or ending their career (like blacklisting, etc.).  So, even though they may have liked the attention at the start, they can’t stop when it turns ugly.  Now, the relationship is no longer consensual.  This is harassment.

Or, what if the break-up is consensual but now the CEO has to rate the employee’s performance?  The employee is afraid that the CEO will be vindictive or will treat them unfairly because of the break-up.  This could be retaliation.

The best thing an organization can do is prohibit CEOs (and other C-suite individuals) from having relationships at work.  Period.  Institute a policy.  Talk with the board and leadership.  Explain you will enforce this.  Then, if it happens, take action.  This was what happened at McDonald’s.  This is what happened at Intel.

As my grandfather said (to his 14-year-old granddaughter (see, I was made for this work)), “Don’t get your money where you get your honey,” and “Don’t dip your pen in the company ink.”  If you’re a CEO out there, take these idioms to heart.  Not following them could end your career.

 

 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Saying Something Calculus

Full disclosure:  While visiting Consulate General Jerusalem in 2011, Vice President Biden heard it was my birthday and then kissed me on the cheek.  At the time, it was weird.  At times, it was a cool story to tell, but it remains weird. 

“Why didn’t she say something?”  “She should have said, ‘don’t touch me.’”  “We need to have a conversation.”  These are all common responses to women who have shared their uncomfortable interactions with a variety of powerful men – including Vice President Joe Biden.  Look closely at them.  Note how all of them place an obligation on the target of the questionable behavior and never on the person engaging in that behavior.

That is why these responses are flat-out wrong.

I get the argument for the responses.  How is someone supposed to know that their behavior is inappropriate if no one tells them?  Are we expecting everyone to be a walking encyclopedia (or Wikipedia for you youngsters) of cultural norms?  Most certainly not.  That said, you do need to use some emotional intelligence and plain-ole common sense and treat everyone with respect.

Emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”  Being aware of other people would suggest that when you’re going in for the hug, you see the look of panic on the individual’s face.  Controlling your own emotions means you don’t kiss a colleague when you successfully complete a project because we don’t kiss in the workplace.  Handling interpersonal relationships judiciously is understanding that not everyone is a hugger.

Common sense – albeit rare contrary to the very term itself – is defined by being aware of social norms and how they change.  Yes, #metoo has changes our cultural norms.  But the movement hasn’t changed all social norms.  Some are still not understood by all.  The way to know what those social norms are is by being aware of what happens culturally.  Read or watch the news.  Read a book.  Watch the news.  Meet with friends and family.  This is how cultural norms are formed and learned.

The target of the inappropriate behavior is doing her or his own calculus.  If I say something here, how will the person respond?  Is it worth sticking my neck out to say “what you did made me feel uncomfortable”?  Doing this mental calculus quickly often results in saying nothing because of ease, expediency, and social respect.  Remember saying something always has a cost.  I knew that stopping the Vice President to tell him that he shouldn’t kiss people would be awkward and potentially off-putting for a visit already fraught with political tight-rope walking, so my calculus was to not say something.

Instead of putting the target in the crosshairs, we should focus on our own behavior.  For this, the most important thing is to lead with respect; respect of the personal autonomy and beliefs of the people you encounter.  In some cases, it would be inappropriate for a woman to touch a religious man, so when I reach out for a handshake, I might receive a polite bow in response.  I am certainly not offended by his decision to stay true to his faith.  And, because I am conforming to a social norm by reaching for a handshake, he is unlikely to be offended by my gesture as well.

One thing I’m leery of is prohibiting touching all together.  If we tell everyone to stop touching, aren’t we turning into robots?  I’ve got some do’s and don’ts on hugging and kissing:

  1. Do know the person you may want to touch before you do it. When you know someone – even if you’ve only interacted online – a hug may be a totally appropriate greeting.  But that’s only because you know them.  People give you clues on whether it is okay to touch.  A stranger?  No hug and definitely no kiss.  By the end of your meeting, it may be okay to hug goodbye.  The only time to kiss goodbye is at the end of a date (and maybe not on the first date).
  2. Do understand that people are all different and people may feel differently day-by-day. Some people will never hug.  Others may hug all the time.  Some will hug occasionally.  Just like we all process grief differently, we all process hugs in different ways on any given day.  A hugger might be having a bad day and the last thing he wants to do is hug.  Be open to this possibility and watch for the clues your emotional intelligence is picking up on.
  3. Don’t assume you can touch everyone because you’re powerful. It is simply not true that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”  You may be more likely to get away with it because of the power dynamic at play, but no one forgets when someone famous inappropriately touches them.  In fact, if you are in a position of power, like a manager, leader, or “influencer,” it may be appropriate to dial down your normal behavior to hug knowing that others may be made even more uncomfortable because of your status.
  4. Don’t kiss at work.   Not even if your significant other comes to the office.  It’s weird.  (One exception, if you’re in a foreign country and it is socially acceptable to air kiss upon meeting.  Please note the air kiss – no lip contact required.  No lip contact.)

During a recent respectful workplace training, I was asked for the line.  “When does conduct cross the line?”  As I told the gentlemen, I wish I had the answer.  If there was a black/white line, it would be easier for all of us.  However, people have always made things gray and squishy.  It will take our smarts and our hearts to continue to learn about people and make appropriate decisions.

 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Two-Percent, Schmoopercent

Almost two weeks ago, the Washington Post published an article detailing the efforts of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to resolve workplace disputes over harassment and discrimination.  For past two weeks, the article has been nagging me.  Like really, really nagging me.

Out of all the data the Post reviewed, only two percent of the sex, disability, or retaliation cases had a cause finding, meaning the EEOC found cause to believe discrimination or harassment occurred.  In race and age cases, the EEOC found cause to believe discrimination or harassment occurred in only one percent of cases.  Does this mean that between two and one percent of the people who filed charges of discrimination actually have a case?  No.  It can’t mean that.  What do these numbers mean then?

The idea that “nothing will happen if I complain” is bolstered by these numbers.  If any reasonable person who believed they might have a legitimate case of discrimination or harassment read this article, will they still file a charge?  Still go through the stress and anguish of telling their story and waiting months and months to find out that the federal agency they turned to has nothing to help them?  Probably not.

The argument of “Discrimination has been solved and we don’t have to do anything about it anymore” is also bolstered by these numbers.  Yet, most of us know that discrimination and harassment are not solved.  Society still has problems with bias and microaggressions that seriously affect our ability to be a just and civil society and definitely, negatively impact our workplaces.  Yet, some jackass (yes, I meant to swear) is going to point at these numbers and say, “see, there’s nothing here.”

To give the EEOC some credit, they are heavily overworked, underpaid, and under significant pressure to turn cases over as fast as they can.  This means that the easiest thing to do is to try to get some kind of result (note the percentages in the teens for some sort of recovery) and then issue a no cause determination.  But the budgetary and staffing woes of EEOC are not the only reasons for these dismally low numbers.

Another reason for these dismally small numbers is the law.  The law has set an incredibly high standard for what actually is harassment and discrimination.  Employment lawyers joke that that every employer gets one boob grab or one n-word before the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create real liability.  The joke is kinda-sorta funny because it’s kinda-sorta true.  An employer is not likely to be liable for discrimination, the microaggressions, the different treatment until it is really bad.

We have two choices.  One, we can change the law.  Some states are considering lowering the standard, so employees don’t have to meet such high bar to show discrimination or harassment.  (California passed this law, and Minnesota is considering it.)  By removing the analysis of severe and pervasive, employees may have an easier time proving discrimination or harassment pushing employers to take action sooner when confronted with inappropriate behavior.

Two, we can lower the bar ourselves.  We, as employers and HR pros, can set the bar at the level of behavior we are going to tolerate, meaning we can choose not to tolerate microaggressions.  We can choose not to tolerate a single boob grab or n-word.  We can choose not to tolerate the behavior that so many already believe is intolerable.  We don’t have to rush to terminate when communication problems are the culprit, but we can take action more often to make our folks comfortable to be themselves in our workplaces.

This is the thing about the law.  It is most often the floor.  We can do more.  We can say two-percent, shmoopercent.  We will look at every situation, every individual, and say, “You will be respected” and actually mean it by our policies, our trainings, and our actions.

 

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

Me & You Metrics

I wear an Apple Watch.  I have since they debuted in April 2015.  I love it even though I rarely use all of its functionality.  I track my calories burned, whether I work out, get all the notifications from Twitter to reminders to actually breathe.  (Little nugget – I have only missed my stand goal twice in nearly four years.)  I’ve metric-ed myself to death with Ive (my watch’s name).

Yet, I would never share all of this information with an employer.  You can tell where I’ve been, whether I went up a flight of stairs, or my heart rate at a particular time. You’d be able to figure out so much about me, my habits (good and bad), and could even use the information to determine if I’m a good employee.  (She sits too much when she should be chatting with customers or getting parts.)

My personal beliefs of biometrics are part of the reason I’m less-than-enthusiastic about recommending employers use them.  I love the idea of determining if there’s a better way to lay out a manufacturing floor, whether we could reduce real estate costs by encouraging hot-desking, and I’m even for handing out Apple Watches to employees for wellness purposes.  But I just can’t get endorse an employer gathering this data and then making employment decisions based on the data.

My biggest concerns surround privacy and the potential for misuse of personal health information.  Employers don’t get to know what I do off work provided it doesn’t affect the workplace.  If an employer knows, could I get terminated for spending too much time at a movie theater rather than reading business books?  What about not spending the night at my house but at a friend’s? Biometrics can allow data gatherers to be the Big Brother technology has often been portrayed as.

As for health information, biometrics are implicated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act, and many state laws.  Imagine being an employee in a wheelchair where steps taken are not going to be tracked.  Does that mean that that employee is not going to be considered when the health data is aggregated into an analytic tool that determines who should be promoted?  Or imagine being an employee who struggles with his weight who has trouble meeting his step goals.  When his fitness goals are not met, does that mean he could be terminated, maybe even in an effort to reduce overall health costs. (This would likely be unlawful under ERISA, but that might not stop an overly cost-conscious employers.)

To this end, I recently went on XpertHR’s HR Podcast to discuss a new decision out of Illinois on biometric data collection and the possible impact on employers from coast-to-coast.  I encourage you to listen.  You can listen here.

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CEOs & Boards Need Training Too

“Do CEOs get trained on harassment?”  That was the question from a lovely individual who recently went through the wringer of having to let a C-suite-level leader go in her organization.  My answer was “they should.”

Based on media reports over the past year, it doesn’t appear that CEOs, anyone in the C-suite actually get harassment training.  They may pay for training for their own staff and even for managers, but requiring the attendance of CEOs and even boards of directors appears to be few and far between.  In just the past year, CEOs at the following companies have either stepped down in the midst of scandal or were fired:

These are prominent companies.  Companies with significant public profiles.  Leaders who should have known better.  Leaders who did not receive training, who did receive training and didn’t comprehend the consequences, or who simply didn’t care.  It’s quite possible that’s where we are – some leaders may believe the rules do not apply to them.

The law has a different view.  The law says that CEOs ARE your organization.  When they engage in harassment, the organization is automatically liable.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Automatically.  Look at Section VI in the link.)  Because CEOs – no matter the size of your organization – are your public face, they are the “alter ego” of the organization.  What they do binds the organization in business and in harassment.  For this reason, CEOs need to understand the gravity that comes with their bad decisions and actions.  They must understand that sending an inappropriate text, making a sexual request, or touching an employee improperly has significant consequences.  That it can even force the closure or bankruptcy of the organization.  It could be the end of the road.

So, I’m issuing you a challenge HR friends.  As you get ready for 2019 and you organize your training schedule for the year, include your leaders in harassment training.  Involve your board of directors.  Make sure that they attend.  Go over what happens if they engage in harassment.  Explain the investigative process –their technology will be reviewed, including texts and emails.  If you do this, you’ll help protect your organization and hopefully prevent harassment.

Quick story – I once did two trainings for a company.  On the first day, I trained all the managers and leadership, including the CEO.  The second day, I trained employees.  To show how important the training was to the company, the CEO introduced me.  He started with the expected “we take this very seriously” and then said, “I think you’ll like Kate, she’s loose.”  Now, he meant that I was not a stuffy attorney, but nevertheless, that was lesson number one of the training.  He turned all sorts of red, apologized immediately, and we all had a laugh.  I promise you, no one in that organization who was there will forget that and everyone learned something.

If you need help planning your training, take a look here.

 

Photo by Tyler B on Unsplash

Getting Harassment Training Right

Over the last year, I’ve done hundreds of respectful workplace (a/k/a harassment) trainings.  I love this training.  It is my favorite.  This is training is so vital to every organization that I will move vacations to do it.  Seriously.

I speak publicly on harassment training.  Just this year, I’ve done a DisruptHR talk, the North Dakota’s Workforce Development Conference, Minnesota SHRM, and soon the Minnesota Association of Legal Administrators conference on this topic.

I’ve even written a lot on harassment training.  (See here and here for training specifically, and here and here for more general training references.)  The writing has helped me focus my own trainings, making them better for my clients.

After this year (and the years before that), I’ve come up with my own philosophy on harassment training – what makes it good, what can we do better, what should employers consider, etc.  Ultimate Software has been kind enough to include my diatribe on the subject in their collection of white papers.  You can find it here.   Please, if you’re considering putting harassment training on your list of to-dos for 2019, read it.