Heading Off Harassment: How to Create an Open and Honest Workplace Environment

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Zenefits’ chief people officer
shares how she conducts
anti-harassment training.

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By Beth Steinberg


he #MeToo movement has sent a strong message that has been reverberating around workplaces across the nation. Story after story of sexual harassment and discrimination at work has fueled a new level of long-overdue awareness, accountability and discussion on the subject. But for all the good that #MeToo has brought, it begs the question: How can we preempt and prevent this misuse of power in the first place?

Clearly, policy alone doesn’t do it. My guess is every company has a harassment policy in place. Company culture, examples set by leadership and attitudes toward reporting and harassment in general have made it difficult for people to come forward when issues arise and tough for employers to respond effectively.

The #MeToo movement has been addressed in many hallway and lunchtime conversations at my company. In Silicon Valley, where the company is headquartered, many of us have participated in larger conversations about the role and responsibility of tech companies to be fairer, more diverse employers. Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, perhaps the subject will finally stay in the spotlight rather than slowly fading back into the shadows.

For all the good that #MeToo has brought, it begs the question: How can we preempt and prevent this misuse of power in the first place?

As long as the modern workplace has existed there has been sexual harassment and discrimination, but it’s become glaringly obvious that despite changing attitudes and expectations, it remains a pervasive problem. I believe that with communication, persistence and investment, this can change. Here’s how we’re taking steps to head off harassment at my office. Hopefully, many more employers will do the same.

Step One: Connecting Perspectives

At Zenefits, we facilitated an internal roundtable discussion to discuss #MeToo and what it meant to us as employees, co-workers and people. We opened it up to anyone interested and had no specific agenda other than to share experiences, observations and perspectives on the topic overall.

I knew there was a potential for this best-intended forum to go sideways but felt the issue was important enough in Silicon Valley and globally that we needed to take that risk. What resulted was a healthy group of about 40 team members across nearly all of our departments with a wide range of ages and an almost even split between males and females. Attendees shared their reasons for attending, which included being more conscientious colleagues and bosses, being more thoughtful parents and role-models, and wanting to share experiences that too frequently remained unsaid. There were people who’d been harassed in their careers, those who knew people who had been harassed and those who had worked in shelters for abuse survivors.

Despite the fact that a large amount of work remained to be done, our forum allowed the Zenefits team to come together, listen to each other and commit to fighting against harassment at both the individual and company level.

To host your own roundtable forum, here are a few guidelines:

  1. Set the stage; provide definitions and data about the pervasiveness of harassment in the workplace.
  2. Share a range of examples to which you can speak.

  4. Set a few ground rules to ensure the forum feels like a safe space for people to openly share, listen and discuss ideas.

Be willing to share your own story or personal examples. As a senior leader, modeling vulnerability can be a great way to get others to share their experiences.

Step Two: Building ‘Hard Conversation’ Muscle Memory

It’s one thing to recognize an act of harassment and another thing to actually feel comfortable enough to address it in the moment, whether you are a victim or a witness.

Zenefits has begun holding sessions to flag unwanted behavior and practice addressing it. The idea is simple: with practice, we can create “muscle memory” that makes it second nature to speak up. The sessions are a result of feedback we received from employees, many of whom were not sure how to respond to harassment or discrimination if they encountered or witnessed it.

For our first session, I provided a set of sample scenarios that were built from my 20 years of experience in people management roles. Participants first tried to intellectualize the problems, and most agreed that they’d likely report the situation to HR.

However, after a few examples, the group started to open up and act out the stories, then share what they’d say to the people in the situation as it happened. The more we practiced, the better we got. One key strategy emerged: asking the perpetrator what he or she meant by the comment/action in question as it happened, whether it was one-on-one or in a group setting.

The takeaway from this is that direct communication, especially in front of other team members, can send a strong signal to the person in question that their words and actions have the potential to harm people.

A few considerations on how to host your own ‘tough conversations’ practice:

  1. Prepare a list of five to 10 scenarios, ranging from overt (unwanted physical contact by a boss, racial insensitivity, inadvertent misuse of power like always asking a female in a meeting to get coffee) to more benign (an unhappy employee complaining about the workplace to a new hire).
  2. Open up the scenario practice to a wide variety of employees across the company.
  3. Suggest teams of three to take each scenario, with one person as perpetrator, one as the victim and one the observer. All three teammates should discuss the outcomes and other ideas for each scenario.
  4. Have the group come together to discuss how it felt to be in each position, what they learned and how they can share what they learned with others.

  6. Repeat frequently enough to turn the practice into a skill

Step Three: Creating a Culture of Candor

At every company where I’ve worked, my No. 1 coaching point has been how to deliver feedback with care and candor. This applies to potential perpetrators of harassment in much the same way as it does to development and performance. The idea is simple: Be direct, honest and provide concrete examples. It is also critical to follow up as quickly as possible; teachable moments are most instructive when delivered soon after the situation in question transpires.

Be willing to share your own story or personal examples. As a senior leader, modeling vulnerability can be a great way to get others to share their experiences.

Our goal at Zenefits is to create a culture of candor, and I see our approach to subjects like harassment as a reflection of our commitment to that promise. If companies worldwide use the unprecedented momentum of the #MeToo movement to make substantive changes to their policies, conversations and everyday lives, I believe we have the potential to drastically reduce this poisonous behavior.

To power your culture with tools to stop harassment in its tracks, a few tips:

  1. Help employees understand what harassment looks like and reinforce their right and responsibility to address it as they see it. Using civil discourse is the best company inoculation against misuse — and misunderstanding — of power.
  2. Address potential issues right away. Aside from simply being what the victim deserves, the alleged perpetrator will be more likely to acknowledge wrongdoing.

  4. Ensure that all employees know how to report unethical behavior and that they feel safe doing so. Institute a no-tolerance policy on retaliation against people who file reports.

Beth Steinberg is chief people officer at Zenefits. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.