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07 Dec. 2017 | Comments (0)

The past few weeks have seen an extraordinary increase in awareness, and acknowledgement, that sexual assault, harassment, coercion, and improprieties happen in the workplace with appalling frequency, and that perpetrators must be held accountable by their employers and by society. I hope that it will now be much, much harder for any American workplace to turn a blind eye (or worse) when an employee raises such an allegation. After all—we should all view freedom from unwanted sexual activity as a basic human right. But what happens when the behavior takes place outside the workplace? What role do companies have in that case?

More and more, what happens on employees’ “own time” is also relevant to a company, especially with the visibility of social media. A thorough code of conduct policy should include guidance on social media practices and activity. For example, if an employee posts something alluding to being a perpetrator, witness, or victim of sexual misconduct at work or anywhere else, the incident should be addressed—just as it would if an employee posted hate speech, or disclosed any unlawful behavior.

Code of conduct policies should also clearly state that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated in any form, while defining the behavior that the company finds unacceptable. For example, the company may decide that work meetings in certain places (an example might be hotel rooms) are forbidden. And no code of conduct policy should remain static. It should be reviewed annually and should reflect any new best practices or learnings, especially as the company may deal with any investigations or cases of misconduct.  

We know that swift and decisive action should be taken if an employee is culpable of sexually harassing or assaulting another employee. However, we also have a responsibility to survivors whose perpetrator is not on the company payroll.

Experiencing sexual harassment or assault can be traumatic. Traumatic experiences are those that overwhelm a person’s regular capacity to cope and process the situation. Trauma reactions can leave an individual feeling, thinking, or reacting in ways that feel out of their control and it can cause performance issues at work.

Company executives should learn how to identify the signs of trauma, so they recognize when it may be the cause of performance issues. Management that is empathetic to victims of violence can do a great deal to enhance work performance in a positive, not punitive way.

One way to identify if a performance issue is due to an employee’s reaction to trauma is by becoming familiar with the “Recognize, Respond, Refer” model. The following is adapted from Safe Horizon’s  SafeWork program, a unique training and education program that helps companies keep employees safe.

  1. Recognize Is an employee taking more unplanned days off than usual? Are they increasingly late? Do they exhibit unusual levels of anxiety or fear? Have you witnessed an encounter that didn’t seem appropriate? If yes, these could be signs that something has happened and it’s worth checking in.
  2. Respond Express concern for the employee and share concrete examples of what you observed to illustrate why you are concerned. Listen without expressing judgement or giving advice. You can also identify resources for your colleague that they can utilize when and how they wish. Do not tell a colleague what to do, let them decide the best course of action for themselves. 
  3. Refer Organizations that help victims of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, like Safe Horizon, are available to provide expert support and help survivors better understand their options. Each individual experience is unique, and survivors are the experts in their own lives. Refer a colleague you may be concerned about to or our 24-hour hotline: 1-800-621-HOPE. If you’re not in New York, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) operates a national hotline that you can call at 1-800-656-HOPE. All calls are free and confidential. And often companies’ EAPs have some training in this area, though it is not always the case that they have the most expertise.

Finally, companies can also demonstrate their commitment to taking a stand against sexual violence by partnering with non-profit organizations that serve victims of these crimes. Safe Horizon benefits from partnerships with companies that provide philanthropic support, sponsorship, pro bono resources, product donations, and much else. We also provide opportunities for employees to engage in volunteerism both at our program sites and at their offices, conducting resume writing workshops or packing personal care kits for the survivors in our domestic violence shelters, for example.

Through our SafeWork program, we work with companies to educate HR professionals and managers organization-wide about recognizing and responding to colleagues who may be experiencing violence. In every community, the local nonprofit that works with victims of violence is likely to welcome such partnerships and support. I encourage companies to reach out to organizations serving victims of sexual violence in their communities to inquire about how they could support them in this essential work. 

No one should have to deal with effects of sexual misconduct alone. By fostering a positive and safe working environment for all, you not only attract and retain high-quality staff, but you do your part to protect a fundamental human right: safety.

  • About the Author: Ariel Zwang

    Ariel Zwang

    Ariel Zwang has been the CEO of Safe Horizon since 2008. Safe Horizon is the nation’s leading victim services organization, each year providing support to hundreds of thousands of people who hav…

    Full Bio | More from Ariel Zwang


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