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HR Handled Right

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One of the biggest frustrations I hear from my plaintiff attorney colleagues is this; jurors (and most people for that matter) have a very hard time understanding why anyone would put up with sexual harassment for weeks or months without doing anything about it.

In fact, ask 100 people on the street what they would do if some creep at work was coming on to them and 90 of them will say they would take some kind of action – tell the person to knock it off, go to HR or punch the guy (or gal) in the mouth. However, if you ask 100 people who have been in that situation what they actually did, you’ll get very different answers. The vast majority will tell you they either a) tried to ignore it; b) tried to stay away from the person; or c) found another way to get out of there (asked for a transfer or quit).

The Top Reason Employees Keep Their Mouths Shut

So why don’t intelligent, usually assertive employees speak up right when the offensive behavior starts? Hands down, the number one reason is this: “I’m afraid of what will happen.” Most employees realize that once the proverbial cat is out of the bag, there’s no way to put it back in – and they no longer have control over where it goes.

Just about anyone who’s thought about speaking up is terrified of what will happen if they do. Before s/he speaks up, s/he is just a regular employee. However, the minute the employee complains about offensive behavior, s/he becomes something far more sinister in many executive’s eyes. A complainer. A prospective litigant. A financial threat. And, all too often, the corporate fear surrounding this new role gets communicated in a myriad of ways.

When the Fear is Justified

Unfortunately, some employees can cite very good, company-specific reasons why they should keep their mouths shut. “I saw what happened to the last person who complained.” “My manager does the same thing and no one cares.” “HR can’t keep their mouths shut.”

It’s not just about how previous sexual harassment complaints have been handled; employees are all too aware of how employee complaints in general are dealt with. An employee who walks through a manager’s open door policy only to encounter a closed mind behind it learns pretty quickly the difference between policy and practice.

So What’s HR to Do?

Fear of retaliation is natural. I don’t think there’s any way to completely alleviate it. However, there are some things HR can do to minimize it, both before and after a complaint:

  • The most important step senior executives can take in this area is simply to communicate ethical expectations more clearly to employees. In fact, research suggests that improving clarity of expectations and disciplinary guidelines can reduce misconduct levels by more than 40%
  • Managers and supervisors should be trained on how to handle employee concerns and how to instill a corporate culture in which employees raise concerns without fear of reprisal. Employees not only expect their managers to know what to do when faced with an offensive behavior complaint, they expect them to do it with tact and sensitivity.
  • All employees should be put on notice (e.g., through training and the employee handbook) that, if they punish another employee for raising a concern, they will be subject to disciplinary action.

Any manager who thinks employee silence is golden should consider that the longer offensive behavior goes on, and the harder a company makes it for an employee to complain, the more likely it is that what’s golden will be the bank accounts of the attorneys involved.

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