In response to the growing #MeToo movement, Oregon Governor Kate Brown recently signed into law the Oregon Workplace Fairness Act, designed to offer workers greater protection from harassment and discrimination.
Specifically, the act prohibits employers from entering into employee agreements containing non-disclosure, non-disparagement or similar confidentiality provisions that prevent employees from discussing or disclosing sexual assault or discrimination conduct. Additionally, it extends the time for filing claims from one year to five and requires written anti-harassment policies.
Why This Matters
#MeToo has had a profound impact on the business community since the movement first hit the spotlight in late 2017. In fact, according to the Third Annual HR Acuity Employee Relations Benchmark Study, 53 percent of organizations say they’ve seen an increase in sexual harassment allegations, while the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported a 13.6 percent increase in charges filed alleging sexual harassment from fiscal year 2017. And, according to the New York Times, in the year that followed the #MeToo surge, more than 200 men were fired and replaced due to claims of harassment.
The Oregon Workplace Fairness Act is the latest in a growing body of new legislation aimed at eradicating forced silence following abuse and misconduct – and it’s sure to be far from the last. According to the American Bar Association, 16 states have already introduced bills to address harassment-related non-disclosure provisions, while other legislation is popping up that targets things like mandatory anti-harassment training and greater female representation on boards of directors.
New York just passed a law greatly changing the workplace harassment protection landscape. Some of the major changes included ending the requirement that harassment had to be considered “severe and pervasive” for an employer to be charged with sexual harassment. The law uses lower-bar language to be able to apply sexual harassment to more situations. The time period for reporting incidents of harassment was increased from one year to three years, among many other changes.
Don’t Wait. Be Proactive.
Whether legislative action has taken root in your state, this recent uptick in anti-harassment government enforcement is a call to action for businesses everywhere to step up, respond and join the conversation.
Here are five steps you can take to create a harassment-free workplace and comply with new legislation.
- Update your policies and processes: Now is the time to examine your policies, handbooks and compliance programs to ensure that they include clearly articulated anti-harassment and anti-retaliation language. Offer examples of conduct that would constitute harassment and stipulate that violations will be followed by firm, swift disciplinary action
Also, look at your existing procedures. Do you have a well-defined process for employees to file a complaint—and has it been clearly communicated? What about your investigation process? It is thorough and unbiased? Are you collecting the right data and pulling in the right resources? Don’t be complacent; be proactive and vigilant. Periodically review your procedures and evolve as needed.
- Reshape your employee agreements: While NDAs are helpful in protecting trade secrets and confidential information of a business, their arbitration clauses have also long been used to settle harassment cases quietly. Those days are coming to an end, as evidenced by laws like Oregon’s Workplace Fairness Act. Get ahead of it. Remove any language from your employee agreements that prohibits survivors of harassment or abuse from disclosing what happened to them. View it not as a risk to your organization, but rather an opportunity to embrace transparency and accountability.
- Up the ante on your training programs: In the past, many employers approached anti-harassment training as a check-the-box activity. But, as we’ve learned over the past few years, the business community at large has not been doing enough. Take a good, hard look at your company’s anti-harassment compliance training to ensure it delivers relevant information that everyone understands—and takes seriously.
Illustrate what the behavioral spectrum looks like, using real life employment scenarios with hands-on exercises to drive it home. Require additional training for managers, aimed at helping them manage their workplace culture to minimize risk, with guidance on situational responses, should an issue occur.
For help, leverage resources like the EOC Training Institute, which offers workplace respect and anti-harassment compliance training designed to teach skills and strategies that support a healthy culture of respect and compliance.
- Offer a safe place for people to be heard: A healthy workplace culture is one that supports employees facing challenges—and that includes event the most sensitive issues, like workplace harassment and discrimination. Let employees know that yours is a safe environment where their voices can be heard without the risk of retaliation. Encourage them to share their experiences, ask questions, and come forward with concerns.
- Use technology to ensure fair, consistent processes: Take advantage of technology solutions to ensure compliance and identify trends. Reporting and analytics tools will help you manage issues before they escalate and identify the reasons behind them when they do, while documentation tools let you document and store everything in one central spot for quick access to critical information when you need it. Technology is can bring greater intelligence to your employee relations processes.
#MeToo has forever changed the landscape of workplace culture, highlighting vulnerabilities and demanding change. Embrace your role in the shift, prioritize respect in the workplace and deliver a strong company culture for your workforce.
For more insight into how organizations are addressing sexual harassment, download our special report: #MeToo in the Workplace.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.