Workplace Harassment: Making Sense of Rapid Developments in the #MeToo Era

Workplace harassment is a complex and multi-faceted issue that affects every industry. Susan Brecher and Katrina Nobles from the Scheinman Institute at Cornell University are faculty experts in the fields of conflict resolution, employment law, and employee relations. They sat down with eCornell’s Chris Wofford to discuss the various ways in which organizations can respond to workplace harassment.

What follows is an abridged version of their conversation.

Brecher: Katrina and I worked for the Scheinman Institute, which is the institute for conflict resolution at Cornell University. I am the Director of Employee Relations, Employment Law, and Diversity and Inclusion, all of which directly relate to today’s topic. Katrina is the Director of Conflict Programs for the Scheinman Institute. She works on many projects related to conflict both on and off campus. Harassment is a topic that often brings up conflict.

Nobles: In addition to our work with Scheinman Institute, we host a public workshop series. Organizations then ask us to bring the topics covered in the workshops to their offices. These training topics include employee relations, conducting investigations, and employment laws, as well as programs on cross-cultural communications and conflict. We also help build organizational structure around what was learned.

Wofford: What does harassment in the workplace look like?

Brecher: Federal law does not define workplace harassment, and therefore it is open to interpretation. The working definition of sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and physical contact. The other definition relates to all forms of harassment in the protected classes: race, gender, national origin, and age. Here, the focus is on verbal or physical areas of conduct, and how they denigrate or show hostility. The two areas of focus are power-based harassment, and environmental, or the existence of a hostile work environment. These all relate to federal law, but there are state and local laws with even greater protections.

Wofford: How do the workplace policies relate to the legal definitions?

Brecher: Policies contain the minimum legal standard, but many go beyond that. Companies are looking for a higher expectation of respect and dignity to bring them in line with their mission and value statements.

Nobles: For many, their mission and value statements represent the ideal. They want to represent these strong values. However, the actions and behaviors that would support this don’t often occur. Missions and values are hard to define and are perceived through multiple lenses.

Brecher: In our trainings, we encourage leaders to find out what the terms mean to the people they work with, instead of assuming they know the answers.

Nobles: We often talk about what respect and dignity looks like. For example, if you show up to a meeting late, is that disrespectful? Opinions differed.

Nobles: How do you account for differences in working style, or generational differences?

Brecher: Workplace styles don’t necessarily break down by generation. And while I know there are generalizations or stereotypes, and it gives us insights into individuals, that’s where we begin to have problems and misunderstandings. One of our goals is to really help people understand their reaction to behaviors.

Nobles: We approach each person as an individual. We try to understand employees’ working and conflict styles to determine how we work best together. We focus on individual culture, social identities, and upbringing. For example, what part of the country did we grow up in? The answers make a huge difference.

Brecher: There’s often a great “A-Ha!” moment when individuals can see you’re not attacking them, but instead recognizing that they come in with a different lens. Some of those lenses negatively impact behaviors.

Wofford: Are companies today concerned about liability?

Brecher: Most organizations are less concerned about liability and more concerned about media exposure, in particular social media. When I train managers I ask them, “Would you like to see yourself on the news engaging in these behaviors? Or on social media?” And all of a sudden another “A-Ha!” moment arrives. Managers need to know what to say because we tell managers they have to report. Some managers think, “If I don’t see it, I don’t have to report.” We now teach them that yes, they do have to do something. But we want them to feel comfortable speaking, so we teach them the words to say.

Nobles: Speaking up is powerful. We need to empower employees to speak up themselves if they’re put into an uncomfortable situation. If they’re not comfortable doing that, they need access to the appropriate channels where someone else can speak up for them.

Brecher: Too often, we’re reacting to the person that comes to us and says, “This person has been doing this for the last six months,” as opposed to supporting the culture in which that person may have said after the first time something happened, “I’d like to give you some respectful feedback.” Having those support points earlier on makes it a completely different organizational culture.

Nobles: Everybody has a different perception of what should be permissible, based on experience and culture. At work, our cultures are meeting everybody else’s culture, and we may have differences. Conversations help the shared understanding around actions and behaviors.

Wofford: Some HR managers are expected to have an enormous degree of responsibility. Is this fair?

Brecher: HR must partner with the experts in the organization to build relationships so that as a team, managers better understand their operations. Partnering opportunities are vital. You have to approach it as a group from an organizational perspective.

Wofford: Should managers learn to investigate instances of alleged harassment?

Brecher: Managers should not conduct investigations unless they know how. Sometimes this can be guided by people who have that expertise.

Nobles: The best tool is to have somebody from your organization attend a full training on how to conduct investigations, because it is complex.

Want to hear more? Watch the recorded live eCornell WebSeries event, Workplace Harassment: Making Sense of Rapid Developments in the #MeToo Era, and subscribe to future events.

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