Workplace misconduct: Steps for preventing sexual harassment

A swift response can mitigate reputational damage, but forceful, clear employee communication that heads off bad behavior is a better approach for all concerned.

Hardly a day passes without news of more sexual harassment allegations.

More than 40 men have recently been fired or forced to resign after accusations of improper conduct. The trend of exposing abusers shows no sign of slowing, so PR teams should be prepared to respond when a client or company leader is named and shamed.

First, a refresher on what constitutes harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

A new face for PR crisis management

The wave of harassment allegations has given a new face to PR crisis management, says Andrew Blum, principal of AJB Communications. Many accused of misconduct have been fired or forced out almost immediately after allegations surfaced, leaving PR professionals with few options other than long-term reputation repair.

The scandals have mostly roiled politics and the entertainment industry, but other business sectors are far from immune. A Redbook survey of its readers this year revealed that 80 percent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work—just a slight change from 1976, when 90 percent of its readers reported unwanted attention at work.

From a communication perspective, responding quickly and directly is the first step to mitigating reputational damage to the accused person and the organization. A survey by PR agency Bospar with Propeller Insights reveals that most people want organizations to respond within 24 hours, says Curtis Sparrer in an O’Dwyer’s article. They also want to be promised an independent investigation and affirmation that the mistake won’t be repeated. A third of people surveyed want to hear an apology—as long as it’s sincere and free of obfuscation.

When accusations become public, legal counsel and PR advisors often offer disparate advice to management. Decision-makers must weigh the differing approaches to determine the most appropriate response. Here are a few guidelines to consider:

Maintain trust. Avoid words and phrases that cause people to doubt your sincerity, Sparrer recommends. They include “fake news,” “I swear” and “media conspiracy.” An inability to remember creates the most doubt in people’s minds.

Revisit and revive company sexual harassment policies. Legal and PR experts urge organizations to re-evaluate employee policies on sexual harassment. It’s also crucial to revisit how policies are communicated to workers.

Many companies rely on stale, perfunctory paperwork. Instead, create communications that employees will want to read and videos they’ll want to view, urges Jacqueline Strayer, a faculty member at New York University. Communications should reinforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment and resonate across cultures, communities and generations, Strayer writes in an article for the Institute for Public Relations.

Get management involved. It’s essential that leaders discuss harassment issues with employees, Strayer says. Managers need more than standard talking points and FAQs, however. Communicators must craft messages that simply, directly and clearly affirm company policy.

To be effective, policies require training, monitoring and enforcement, says David Kern, a partner at the law firm of Quarles & Brady. An audit of an organization’s vulnerabilities should involve HR professionals, legal counsel and PR professionals, says Kern. Teamwork between all three groups can help prevent—or at least minimize— reputational damage.

Perform a “reality check” to determine whether employees understand company policy, Kern advises. Don’t assume workers are up to speed “because they signed a form saying they’d read the policy.”

In addition, find out whether employees believe the company is committed to a harassment-free workplace and isn’t just paying lip service to the issue, experts advise. Third-party experts skilled at conducting employee interviews and leading focus groups can help.

Continually monitoring social media can also shed light on employee sentiment. Besides uncovering inappropriate comments online, social media monitoring can reveal signs of underlying issues of misconduct in the workplace. “Often times, social media channels can be a source for employees to vent about things they might not raise in the workplace,” Strayer says.

The proliferation of sexual harassment controversies will continue to pose challenges for communicators and PR pros in the coming year. If you’re not prepared to deal with an allegation of misconduct, you should be. Perhaps more important, communicators should work to create harassment-free workplaces by championing strong corporate policies and effective employee communication that prevents incidents.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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