Nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, the awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace has prompted many large and small business owners to take a closer look at their own policies and procedures.
John Heaton, president of Pay Plus Benefits in Kennewick, believes there’s been cyclical attention to the issue over the years.
“This first became a big deal in 1998 following two Supreme Court rulings, and that’s when the sexual harassment preventing training really took off. But I think as we look at what’s happening today, it didn’t do a good job, did it?” Heaton asked.
The 20-year-old rulings put employers on notice that they can be held responsible for supervisors’ misconduct, even if they knew nothing about it.
Heaton founded a Kennewick-based professional employer organization that contracts with companies to provide human resource services, especially for small businesses. His team can be the first line of defense when an employee has a concern about harassment in the workplace.
Heaton’s experience leads him to believe the industry has a failed method focused more on checking a box and less on creating a culture with frequent conversations about what harassment is and how it can be kept out of the workplace.
“Most of the training programs were, in essence, a PowerPoint with a message and you check that you’ve read the message,” Heaton said. “This might go on for 30 minutes for employees and up to an hour for supervisors. If you look at CBS News with Charlie Rose and NBC News, you would say, those training programs didn’t prevent anything.”
Heaton has found the average time spent on training has increased 50 percent, but understands small business owners may be concerned about how they can be successful at preventing sexual harassment when so many large companies with high-profile names have not.
What’s become known as the #MeToo movement started in fall 2017, shortly after entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. People started posting #MeToo on social media to indicate that they, too, had been sexually harassed at some point in their life.
The groundswell of support for those coming forward, even without making formal allegations, even led to the introduction of a bill using the METOO acronym, called the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act. The bill was introduced by a California congresswoman with the intention of combatting sexual harassment in the U.S. Congress. It’s still sitting in committee and has not been voted on by the full House.
Mission Support Alliance was forthcoming about its training and processes to prevent harassment in the workplace. The Hanford contractor uses in-person training as part of an employee’s onboarding process followed by computer-based instruction.
“It’s video vignettes and some quizzes, multiple choice, if you get the answer wrong, you’re redirected,” explained Debbie Mariotti, equal employment opportunity and diversity officer for MSA. “We do review the videos as well. In fact, I just did it in March, to make sure it’s consistent with the laws and the climate of the country right now.”
The videos were created by Hanford’s HAMMER training facility.
“We have pretty rigorous training and we’re always modernizing it,” said Todd Beyers, vice president of human resources for MSA. “We haven’t changed our training, but we think the content of our training is pretty clear and explains to employees how to look for these things.”
Beyers said the #MeToo movement hasn’t resulted in any immediate overhaul of the systems currently in place and describes MSA’s training as aggressive.
“Do we look at it differently now? No, we don’t, because we feel our training is pretty advanced,” Beyers said. “But it has driven a lot of conversation internally. There is a heightened awareness of it, but our programs and training have stayed consistent.”
The area’s largest employer, Battelle, which manages the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said it also did not make changes in the wake of #MeToo, because it’s always encouraged a culture of appropriate workplace behavior.
“These expectations are communicated regularly, starting with on boarding and continuing through our annual business ethics training, and day-to-day behavior expectations shared by managers,” said Greg Koller, PNNL’s senior public affairs advisor. “PNNL has an active Diversity Council and Employee Resource Groups that support management and staff in realizing this objective. Their recommendations are used to refresh our communications and training content as the external environment evolves. A recent example of this is putting more emphasis on teaching and encouraging bystanders who witness sexual harassment or inappropriate workplace behavior to intervene.”
Beyers pointed to other training efforts at Mission Support Alliance on issues that could also affect a workplace environment, including unconscious bias.
“It’s all about how are people thinking and not knowing what they’re thinking,” Beyers said. This topic led to more than 200 managers receiving instruction from an outside source with extensive experience on the issue.
According to research by the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, the nation’s largest HR professional society, 94 percent of HR professionals surveyed by the group said their organizations have anti-harassment policies in place. Yet 22 percent of non-management employees couldn’t say for sure if these policies existed. The research was done in January 2018 and included two confidential surveys of 1,078 HR professionals and 1,223 non-manager employees.
The same survey by SHRM found 11 percent of non-management employees said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past year, and three-quarters of those did not report it. Reasons for the lack of reporting included fear of retaliation or a belief that nothing would change.
Starbucks created top-of-mind awareness with unconscious bias training when it closed more than 8,000 stores for a single afternoon to educate employees on their own potential racial bias, which they may not even realize exists.
Heaton is aware this kind of investment is often not cheap for an employer but he wants it to be. Just in the last six months, Pay Plus Benefits developed a program called “HR Flicks” that sends three-minute videos in cartoon form on a monthly basis, targeted to small business owners. Heaton said it breaks down complex human resource issues so an employer can identify with them.
“It covers not only harassment, but it also covers new laws. We patterned this after the success of Netflix, with the format that we send out. So it tells you over the last 30 days what are the newest laws you need to be aware of and what is trending.”
An HR Flicks subscription costs about $13 a month and the company is working to cover employment law in 11 western states.
Other professionals, like financial advisors, are also subscribing to HR Flicks to send to clients as part of an added value to their services. Heaton directs small business owners who identify with the topics presented to seek additional help through their human resources store.
“The stories are to bring it front of mind so a business owner can say, ‘I just experienced that. Now who can I turn to for help?’ ”
Over the summer, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, convened a task force to study harassment in the workplace. EEOC leadership said the groundwork has been laid for a renewed effort to prevent harassment.
The EEOC and Fair Employment Practices Agencies recorded 152 charges alleging sexual harassment filed in Washington state in fiscal year 2017.
“Our challenge is to use this #MeToo moment well,” said EEOC Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum.
HR professionals like Heaton and Beyers believe using it well means a constant conversation about appropriate culture within the workplace.
“We have heightened awareness and we bring it up in meetings frequently to managers to be more aware of the environment and things that are going on,” Beyers said.
“You need to have this as a culture within your company and it needs to be reminded frequently,” Heaton said. “Each individual business has to say, ‘The workers who come here are not going to face harassment.’ And the owner needs to have policies in place where people can turn to.”
But whether the national awareness and conversation will have an impact on changing the problem remains to be seen.
“We won’t know for several years whether the #MeToo movement has had any effect or not,” Heaton said. “I’m not that impressed with it just for grabbing a lot of headlines. Do I think down in the rank-and-file that suddenly people have changed? They outlawed murder a long time ago and that has not changed anything at all.”
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