Human Resources

HR firms ramp up training after #MeToo movement

Consultants offer sexual harassment policy refreshes; employee, bystander and manager education.

December 28, 2018
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Human resources firms always have full plates helping clients with Title VII compliance — but demand has reached a new peak in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

As women and men have mobilized globally since October 2017 to speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, and in some cases bring legal action against the accused, many workplaces have landed in the spotlight over having what employees call “toxic cultures” that foster mistreatment.

A trio of local HR firms say their work helping employers comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not new, but companies they serve now are more aware of the consequences of getting it wrong.

Jason Reep, president of The Employers’ Association (TEA) — a not-for-profit group that provides HR services to more than 500 organizations in West Michigan — said demand beginning in the first quarter of 2018 was “absolutely incredible,” a large increase over the previous year. In one case, he went to a workplace that hadn’t done sexual harassment training in 18 years.

Reep said an often-overlooked part of the training picture is bystander education.

“There was a study commissioned by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) a couple years ago pre-#MeToo,” Reep said. “In this study, they said, ‘What do universities and employees do in regard to bystander training, and what do employers and HR do?’

“The study identified you can have a commitment to training (everyone on the facts of unlawful behavior), but all of that is second to the employees saying, ‘Hey, that’s not cool, don’t do that.’”

As a result, Reep incorporates training on bystander responsibilities into TEA’s usual education that defines what sexual harassment is, how victims should report it and what HR departments should do when they receive a complaint.

Through scenario exercises, Reep asks participants what they should do if they see ‘X’ occurring in the workplace, then debriefs by talking about the roles and responsibilities of the employee and employer, respectively, to help create a safe environment and increase sensitivity.

Reep said he recommends employers pair workplace harassment training with a TEA program called “Workplace Inclusion.”

It offers an overview of how to treat and not treat people in connection with their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race, national origin, disability, religion and socioeconomic status.

“(It’s) a more blatant program about how you create a more inclusive work environment that really demonstrates respect and appreciates employees and doesn’t block employees’ creativity and all the things you get with inclusion,” Reep said.

Another big element of the workplace inclusion and anti-harassment package is creating a well-written policy, according to Reep.

“They absolutely in that policy need a reporting structure and leadership commitment to a workplace free of harassment,” he said.

Lisa Cooper, people strategist at Grand Rapids-based HR Collaborative, said her firm follows a stair-step approach to sexual harassment training.

“We like to start with a company look at policies, coaching, training, then do follow-up workshops,” she said.

HR Collaborative acts as an HR director/department for many small and midsize companies. Training options include leadership coaching, a 30-minute video training facilitated by an HR Collaborative director or a more in-depth, four-hour curriculum added in September called Respect at Work. It includes a card deck toolkit that provides “foundational advisory and leadership topics” for employers and managers.

Lisa Evans, executive director of Community Action of Allegan, participated in a recent training using the card deck.

“I think it was extremely helpful,” she said. “The content gave a multitude of approaches and situations in which, as leaders, we were asked and reminded to look to our strengths and weaknesses and to recognize the areas (where) we may lack knowledge. The cards were helpful in showing examples of how to improve those areas.”

Cooper and Meg Lehigh, HR Collaborative leadership development consultant, agreed training is a must-check box for Title VII compliance.

“If there’s ever a claim of harassment in the workplace, the first thing that will be asked of the employer is, ‘When was the last time you did training?’ We need to give managers the tools,” Cooper said.

They said their executive coaching business also has “dialed up” significantly since #MeToo.

“We often get calls from executives and their board chairs saying, ‘I may have found myself in a precarious position and may need to change my behavior; can I work with Meg?’” Cooper said. “Meg does a lot of executive coaching one on one, so they understand how to specifically respond to situations in the workplace.”

Lehigh said sometimes in coaching, she uncovers a “language barrier” of sorts between employees and their superiors.

“Individuals do behavior that they think is acceptable, and the recipients say, ‘No, it’s not,’ but they don’t have the right language or terminology to address what wasn’t right,” she said. “The coaching helps (leaders) understand and grow self-awareness so they can avoid doing that.”

Lehigh and Cooper echoed Reep’s words that #MeToo brought about a “great deal of awareness” in organizations about workplace harassment.

“If anything good came of #MeToo, it’s that it caused all of us in West Michigan and across the country to say, ‘Uh-oh, we can do more,’” Cooper said.

Heather Hoezee, owner of mindbankhr in Grand Rapids, is an independent consultant who works with small to midsize businesses. She said everything hinges on open communication in an organization and that starts with onboarding.

“When a new hire comes on, you have to go over the handbook and provide an overview of expectations in the workplace,” she said. “The sexual harassment document is one case — how do employees report concerns and make sure they know there is an avenue to escalate concerns? — and also making clear retaliation is not acceptable.”

She points managers and executives to the EEOC website as the best starting place for formulating a sexual harassment policy, and there are many other handbook examples online.

Hoezee also does roundtable and open-forum training that includes role-playing, which provides a “safe environment for people to know what their responsibility is,” she said.

It’s important for HR managers and consultants to adjust their content and delivery method over time, Hoezee said, and that’s one of the things #MeToo has pushed her to do.

“A few years ago, it was more clinical and PowerPoint driven,” she said. “Yes, it is still important to deliver information, but there are other important things to talk about — cases and other information. That’s where I’ve tweaked it to be a little more conversational.”

Hoezee noted the Society for Human Resources Management has increased its dialogue with members about sexual harassment in the past year.

“We’re trying to come up with more ideas and resources so people can feel comfortable discussing when these things happen,” she said.

Cooper recommends HR departments don’t limit themselves to robust onboarding and training.

“Those (actions) are more box-checking than culture-changing,” she said. “I would recommend … (a) process that goes all the way through the employee lifecycle.”

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