Relationships Fail

I’ve been a bit of a Donna Downer over the past two weeks.  With 15 harassment/respectful workplace training sessions, I have repeatedly explained the following:

Relationships fail at an alarming rate.  Think of all the relationships you suffer through before you get married.  Could be a lot, right?  Then, only 50 percent of marriages last.  So if you start a relationship at work, it might not last.  Are you ready for that?

Fifteen percent of relationships start at work.  This means that employers – and probably more than a few HR folk – wring their hands over what could happen with a relationship at work.  They may be worried about harassment, favoritism, and the distraction.  But they are also worried about the break-up.  Will the couple be professional?  Will they be petty?  Will their harassment and retaliation policies be invoked?  There are all sorts of worry.  Here’s what I’d like us to worry about.

Professionalism.  When we’re dating someone, we’re not professional.  We don’t keep physical contact to handshakes.  We may (overly) use emojis in emails and messages.  We share secrets, gossip, and vent about work stuff with our significant others.  These are all examples of behavior that is rarely “professional.”

Confidentiality.  Being in a relationship at work may mean we’re sharing sensitive and confidential information with someone who should not have the information.  If one of the couple is in payroll, processing bonus checks before bonuses are announced and shares what his partner is going to get before the announcement, this is a problem.  When we’re in the relationship, we believe we could trust our partner, yet people make mistakes.  Information goes farther than it should.  People find out about decisions before we’re ready to share them and

Harassment.  When couples get too touchy-feely in the workplace, others are uncomfortable.  As Black Widow once told Captain America, “Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable.”  When others are uncomfortable, harassment policies come into play.  It is not unusual to see another employee complain of harassment, especially when they believe (rightly or not) that favoritism is rearing its ugly head.

Chain of command.  When a relationship involves a manager and one of her employees, everything gets more complicated.  There will be allegations of favoritism.  If (when) the couple is in conflict with each other, it may (will) affect their working relationship.  Some of my clients prohibit these kinds of relationships, and I don’t blame them.  We may change the reporting structure, transfer one to a different shift or department.  The risks here given the imbalance of power are significant.

With those concerns, some employers resort to love contracts.  Please don’t.  Love contracts give the appearance that the employer is dictating the terms and conditions of the romance.  And, with the piece of paper, we look even more like we’re heavily monitoring the relationship.  Not a good look.  That said, HR and a manager can certainly have a conversation with the couple about their responsibilities to be professional and avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests.  This conversation should happen.  It even should be documented by HR, but please don’t have a love contract signed by the couple.  We want to be human at work, not overlords.

Despite some of the content of this post, I’m a huge fan of love.  We go into love with big eyes, big hearts, and bushy tails – as it should be.  When that love happens at work, there’s a new level of complexity where we have to be careful.  Call your friendly neighborhood employment attorney.

 

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Man-Bashing Training

Question:  Do we vilify men in harassment training?   

Think about that for a moment.  Do we use more man-on-woman examples?  (Probably.)  Do we need to change this?  Yes.  Harassment training is for everybody because everybody could harass.  According to a recent poll, one in seven men has experienced harassment at work. So, we can’t ignore men and their experiences just because so many women have similar experiences.

It is possible (and maybe even likely) that we’ve created an environment surrounding harassment training that we’ve alienated men or have come across as attacking them.  If this is the case, we should be criticized.  And, we should do better.  Here’s how I think we can do this:

Know our audience.  Every training should be customized to the workplace.  If the scenarios don’t feel real, the training won’t have an impact.  Because we have men in our workplaces, we can’t exclude their experience (and fear) from our training.  We should address it, and give a workable framework on what we expect from them.

Start with respect.  Often in trainings, I hear the statement, “I can’t even compliment a woman anymore.”  This comment comes from a man, usually over 40, who is sitting with his arms crossed, angry that he even needs to be in the room.  I turn to him and say, “There’s a difference between ‘That dress is very nice on you’ and ‘That dress hugs you in all the right ways.’”  He nods, and if I’m lucky, he chuckles a bit.  I then say, “We’re here to talk about that difference.”  That difference is respect.

For all of you labor lawyers cringing at this, listen up!  We live in a society where respect is under a near constant barrage.  We can’t operate in workplaces where respect and integrity aren’t at the core of what we are.  Without respect, we don’t get innovation.  So, we should make respect the cornerstone of our training. Our employees want respect.  They expect and deserve respect.  Starting our training talking about respect is what we must do.  If every conversation was respectful, we wouldn’t have harassment.

Have diverse examples.  Women-on-women harassment happens.  Men-on-men harassment happens.  So, we should have diverse examples.  Some of my best examples – examples that result in the most discussion – are man-on-man and woman-on-man.  We want to have a discussion and a bit of uncomfortableness.  Because we learn when we experience and are at least a bit uncomfortable, the discussion has any chance to really make a difference.

Use the whole scale of harassment.  Include examples of calling someone “sweetheart” or “man candy.”  Talk about staring, dirty jokes, and racial epithets.  You can talk about kissing, hugging, and even assault too, but ignoring the subtle stuff ignores where most harassment starts.  We don’t want this.

Ask, “what would you do?”  We should put our employees in the uncomfortable position of asking them what they would do.  You may be surprised by the responses.  Then, we should explain what we want them to do.  We don’t have to change their personalities to get between a harasser and his/her victim, but we should at least explain who we want them to tell.

Harassment training should mirror the tone of our workplaces.  It should set expectations and be meaningful for employees and managers.  It should make our employees contemplate their conduct without making them feel bad.

One more point:  Ladies, we don’t get to objectify men at work.  I’ve heard the argument that men have objectified women for a long time, so women should get to objectify men as a matter of fairness or even that they like it (uff da).  But like India has to grow green while we polluted for decades, we have to do the right thing.  We can’t objectify them either.  Enjoy a Magic Mike movie, but you can’t bring the poster into the office.  Ok?

This evening, I get to talk about trends in harassment training.  I’ve very excited (and a more than a bit nervous) about this.  Eliminating man-bashing will be one of the trends along with bystander and civility components, manager focus, and welcomeness elimination.  Any others you think I should talk about?

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Harassment & Being the Boss

In response to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, state legislatures and localities are taking action, including requiring sexual harassment training and policies that explain where employees can turn if they don’t believe their employer has handled the situation appropriately.  New York’s new law requires that policies explain that employees will be disciplined for engaging in harassment and – perhaps most importantly – managers will be disciplined when they allow harassment to happen.

Did you read that?  Managers will be disciplined for letting harassment continue. This is where NBC, CBS, and nearly every employer who makes the news has allegedly failed – a manager knew about the behavior and didn’t make it stop.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is why manager training is critical to the end of harassment.

The law focuses on managers because managers are the employer.  They make crucial decisions, like hiring and firing.  They sign contracts.  Often, the buck stops with them even if they are in the dreaded middle management.  This means managers are responsible to take action when they get wind of harassment, but often, managers don’t understand the crucial role they play in preventing and stopping harassment.  As legislative bodies take more and more action, here are some of the lessons you can incorporate into your training now:

Managers must know the work environment they create and manage.  For a manager, the word “manage” is in her title.  So, she must actually manage.  Merriam-Webster defines the verb “manage” as “to direct or carry on business or affairs.”  No one can effectively do this if she doesn’t know what is going on or doesn’t understand how her people interact.  So, dear manager, know your people.  Also, set a tone of respect with your people.  Be the example.  (You can have bad days – pobody’s nerfect – but when you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move forward.)  While the “doing” might be more fun, the “managing” is your job.  When you know the work environment, you can take steps to prevent harassment.

Managers have the power to do something.  A manager can’t throw her hands up when she learns about possible harassment.  Harassment requires her to dig in, tackle the problem, and sometimes, make some really difficult decisions.  Organizations may differ on what exactly they want the manager to do – report to HR, step in and separate the people, suspend the alleged harasser, discipline, etc. – so train the manager on what to do and who to talk to when she needs help.  (Remember, managers need to know enough.)  In manager training, go through scenarios, talk through what the organization would want the managers to do.  This will invite participation, just the kind of interactive dialogue the EEOC and state agencies want in harassment training.

There is no such thing as an official complaint.  A whiff, a rumor, seeing someone uncomfortable or crying, a conversation between a manager and an employee that’s “just between us” all trigger action by an employer.  In order to have a defense to harassment claim, an employer must take “timely and appropriate action” when it learns of harassment, so if a manager learns of harassment, she puts the employer on the hook to take action.  Waiting for an “official” complaint is not only poor management, it creates liability for an employer.  No manager wants to do that.

You will get in trouble for harassing too.  Because the law treats managers as the employer, when a manager engages in harassment, the employer can automatically be liable for the harassment.  Managers have to understand this.

Harassment hasn’t always been clear, and the courts haven’t helped much.  That said, we have an ethical obligation to help employees and managers understand it and how we define respect in our workplaces.  The difference between “You look nice today” and “That dress hugs you in all the right ways” is respect.  One statement is a respectful compliment.  The other can be characterized as harassment.  Will your managers step in when they hear the dress one?  Will they know what to do?  Your managers absolutely need to know what to do at the moment the statement is made or when an employee tells what happened.  So, train them.  Please.

 

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HR Tech’s Adverse Problem

While I totally loitered at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference (I was a presenter, just failed to register – oops), I’d thought a post on what we talked about yesterday and a bit about what’s happening at the University of Minnesota’s HR Tomorrow Conference today: adverse impact, why it’s important, and why you should care.

Adverse impact (known as “disparate impact” by the lawyers) is when groups of individuals described by a particular characteristic is negatively affected by an employer’s decision, selection tool, or policy when that decision, tool, or policy is neutral on its face or does not intend to actually have a negative impact.  For example, if an employer uses a psychological test that filters out African Americans, the test would have an adverse/disparate impact on African Americans.

The concept of disparate impact has been around for a long time.  The United States Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power formally recognized the claim.  Since that time, the law has been debating many aspects of the claim, including what statistical models to use, does the doctrine apply if the rule intends to discriminate, how does impact different from treatment, and will the doctrine apply to all the HR technology out there.  While this post could go on-and-on about all of these questions, this last piece is really important for HR tech buyers, and the answer is probably.

We already know that lots of HR technology vendors, including the fancy-dancy stuff like artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms, etc., market their products as the only way to find the best candidates, identify problem employees, and make all your dreams come true.  When these technologies are used, their use could create a disparate impact.  How do we know?  Because we’ve already seen how these technologies discriminate outside the world of HR – see photo ID that classifies African Americans as gorillas, recidivism tools that increase prison terms for African Americans, etc., so it is highly likely that they could operate the same way when it comes to HR tech.  Arguably, HR tech has the potential to greatly impact because the decisions HR makes affect individual’s livelihood.

So what should we do about diverse impact?  While there are many, many things we need to do to limit the potential that the HR tech we use doesn’t discriminate, we should start with two things.  First, we have to know how the technology works and the data it uses to make recommendations.  This requires vendors to be open and honest with us, lose the marketing gloss, and really explain their products. Can they explain how the tech works?  Can they explain how the tech works on our organization’s data?  Could the data have bias baked in?  (The answer to this last one is probably yes, especially if we’re looking at hiring or performance data.  There’s just no escaping it.)  When vendors are transparent and honest about these issues, we can take more steps to mitigate any disparate impact the tech might have.

Second, we need to test and test and test to see if the tech creates the disparate impact.  Lawyers and data scientists talk about validation as the test.  For lawyers, validation means under the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection Procedures.  For data scientists, validation means how strong the correlations are statistically.  This definitional problem causes more debate and potential confusion.  So, we need to find vendors who understand, appreciate, and can articulate validation under both tests.  Because the HR tech world is a bit like the wild, wild west, it’s hard to find them. (Trust me, they’re out there.  I’ve probably met them or at least brow-beat them from a distance on this very issue.)

All that said, I want HR to understand and appreciate that these issues could exist and start playing an active part in fixing these issues.  While I’d love for everyone to trust each other, placing blind faith in a vendor is not in our organizations’ best interest.  Holding people accountable is one of the strengths in HR.  We should use it here too.

One final note, I love this stuff.  This tech is going to revolutionize how we do business.  I just want to do it in such a way that doesn’t create that much risk for our businesses.  Remember my pledge?

 

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Let Go of Welcomeness

In the legal world, welcomeness has been an element of a sexual harassment claim since Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson – the first U.S. Supreme Court case to recognize sexual harassment under Title VII.  Did the alleged victim welcome the breast grab?  Did she engage in the sexual banter herself?  Did he want his “junk tapped” by coworkers?  If a claim is going to be successful, this analysis is a must.

Yet, this legal standard doesn’t capture the reality of workplace harassment.  It ignores several factors that are at play that could suggest the conduct is welcome when it is most definitely not.  Let me try to convince you that we need to focus on the conduct or comments of harassment and not whether that same conduct is welcome.

People say, “it’s okay” to make the encounter end quickly.

When something bad happens, we often say, “it’s okay” because we want a couple of things: (1) we don’t want to really talk about how we’re feeling, and (2) we want to get out of this situation.  This happens with sexual harassment too.  If someone grabs a butt or a breast – especially if that person is a co-worker or god forbid a manager – we want to get out of this situation fast.  Like super duper fast.  If we actually talk about how this feels or if we challenge a person who has input on our career (including co-workers), we might feel that we’re going to make the situation worse.  So, we say, “it’s okay,” “don’t worry about it” or even shrug it off.  These words or shrug are not words of consent but are words of resignation.  We’re resigned that this happened, and we want to move on.

People do this all the time.  We don’t always confront our racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner or our pastor after a particularly homophobic sermon.  We don’t because we don’t want to cause trouble.  So, why do we make harassment targets do the same thing to prove that they actually were harassed?  (If I had a dime for every harassment policy that says you must tell the harasser to stop as the first step…)

For HR and harassment investigators, the “it’s okay” is a challenge.  For those focused on whether the conduct was welcome, this is the silver bullet.  She said, “it’s okay” so it must be.  It was welcome.  Nothing to see here.  No harassment.  This is the problem. Reminder: Employers have an obligation to keep harassment out of the workplace. Employees have no obligation to report under the law.

Even when sexual conduct is welcome, it’s unwelcome to somebody.

In harassment trainings, I go through a bunch of scenarios.  One of my favorite rapid-fire scenarios is this:

Colin has been head’s down on a project for weeks.  The project is finally over, and he accompanies the team to happy hour to celebrate.  He’s so happy to be done with the project, he kisses Judy.  Is this harassment?

Without fail, within five seconds of reading this scenario, some jokester yells out “what if Judy is his wife?”  I give him (always a him), a look that screams “listen, buster” and calmly say, “Do you work with your wife?”  (Hushed giggles throughout the crowd.)  If Judy was Colin’s wife, arguably he does not engage in sexual harassment as the law would view it.  If Judy is his wife and they begin a rigorous game of tonsil hockey, then the team around them turn their heads away, get up to go to the bathroom, and/or otherwise consider calling it a night.  If this happens, there is an arguable case for sexual harassment since the team clearly did not want to watch the competitive sport of kissing as played by their coworkers.

Here’s another rapid-fire example:

Peter and Juliet joke around all the time.  The jokes have turned flirty with both commenting on each other’s bums.  Is this harassment?

Depending on the industry I’m training, a varying degree of uncomfortableness spreads throughout the crowd.  They suspect the answer is yes, and some will admit they may have done this but they’re not sure if this is “illegal.”  I explain that I’ve helped an organization in a very similar circumstance where the banter was consensual, but the person next to them had to hear it day in and day out.  Eventually, he complained to his boss who then promptly fired him.  While the underlying sexual harassment claim might not have been actionable, the retaliation that resulted was clear.  The lesson here for employees – don’t engage in sexual banter even when you and the other person wants to.

Even when sexual conduct is welcome, it doesn’t always stay welcome.

News flash:  Romantic relationships fail at an alarming rate.  Consider all the relationships that an individual has to go through before marriage.  Then consider that half of marriages fail.  That’s a lot of failed relationships.  In the workplace, relationships fail a lot too.  When a welcome, romantic relationship fails the potential for harassment or retaliation to occur is high.  Scorned lovers – male or female – exist and wreak havoc.  They can seek to rekindle their love with unwanted words, gestures, and touching – all potential conduct in violation of an employer’s sexual harassment policy.

Let’s let go of welcomeness.

When we get a complaint of harassment, we need to look at the conduct or comments that led to the complaint.  It shouldn’t matter whether the conduct was invited or even wanted.  What should matter is that we don’t want our employees, clients, customers, vendors, etc. to watch a rigorous game of tonsil hockey, a butt grab, or hear a particularly randy joke.  We shouldn’t tolerate it in our workplaces regardless of whether it was the married couple in cubes four and ten or the supervisor to her employee in the breakroom.  It’s the conduct that is the problem, not whether it was welcome conduct.

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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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