Legal and HR experts share how sexual harassment training (and following through on it) can create a more positive work environment, help prevent problems and provide guidance when handling a complaint.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—A renewed focus on sexual harassment and the growing acknowledgment of how widespread it is across all workplaces provides a catalyst for hoteliers to review their training and policies to ensure they’re providing a safe work environment for employees.
Hotel News Now reached out to human resources and legal experts to talk about some best practices for sexual harassment training, particularly for those in supervisory and subordinate roles.
Generally any company has a duty to prevent prohibitive harassment in the workplace, said Sylvia St. Clair, associate at Faegre Baker Daniels. It’s in employers’ best interest to react swiftly to any complaints of sexual harassment, she said.
Some employees might hesitate to report harassment to their manager or the corporate office, she said, because there are fears no one will believe them or that their employer will retaliate.
“It’s not enough to have a policy,” she said, explaining there’s more to it than defining harassment and why it’s legally prohibited. “You have to talk about everyone’s responsibility, which is respecting each other. You have to prevent the problem before it begins.”
Sexual harassment training is no different for a GM than it is for anyone working in the corporate office, said Chuck Conine, founder of Hospitality HR Solutions. Every employee at the corporate office should undergo training, as should all supervisors at the property level, including department heads, division heads and assistant managers, he said.
“Make sure everybody who is responsible for directing any other employee understands the rules and what to do to avoid problems,” he said.
At the corporate level, boards of directors like to see officers sign off on a pledge or other type of document “that further restricts their freedom to act like teenagers,” he said.
“The higher up you go in the corporate organizational chart, the more signoffs you’re going to see, particularly at the senior corporate officer level where you could have names in The Wall Street Journal (if news of impropriety got out),” he said.
Employees of Concord Hospitality at all levels receive sexual harassment training, said SVP of Human Capital Debra Punke. Associates receive training on awareness and what to do if they feel uncomfortable because of harassment of any sort, she said, while managers learn awareness and what to do when a situation is brought to their attention. They receive in-person training after being hired and then use an e-learning platform annually.
During orientation, employees learn the policies in the handbook and acknowledge they’ve received and they understand the policies, she said. The e-learning platform her company uses has a documentation function as well to indicate employees have completed the annual training, she said.
As soon as an employee has gone through training, whether in person or by video, the company should document it, St. Clair said. The same policy for documentation should apply to each step of an investigation into a complaint, she said.
“Document everything,” she said. “It’s the best way to ensure the decisions (managers) have made with employees are not viewed as retaliatory.”
In-person and video training
When helping clients train managers and supervisors, St. Clair said her firm prefers to conduct courses in person and in groups.
The training is more effective when the attorneys can go over examples of what may or may not be considered inappropriate conduct and walk participants through the steps. The instructor can make sure the audience is paying attention, she said, and videos are useful to reinforce training employees have already received.
In-person training is more expensive to administer because it requires time, materials and a qualified instructor, Conine said, but he believes this route to be more effective. That instructor would likely be the HR director at the property level and the HR officer at the corporate level, he said.
With this approach, employees attending the training are able to hear other people’s reactions firsthand, and there’s the opportunity to immediately clear up any misconceptions about what might constitute sexual harassment or company policy.
For a company that is fully committed to stopping harassing conduct, there’s really no other option, he said. “When you take that position, you’re drawing a line in the proverbial sand,” he said. “You’re saying, ‘It’s so important to us.’”
Following up on training is critical, Conine said. He recommends for HR directors, during monthly or weekly management meetings, to ask employees to talk about any complaints of harassment without sharing names or salacious details.
Once an employee is considered a supervisor, that person is essentially an agent of the employer, so the company likely becomes liable for that person’s actions as a supervisor, Conine said. GMs need to consider that when deciding who will be a supervisor, he said.
Hiring the right person for the job in the first place means employers will be less likely to encounter problematic supervisors, he said.
In a positive workplace environment, employees are not afraid to come forward with complaints of harassment, and they know they will be heard and can expect swift action to be taken to keep them safe, St. Clair said.
It starts with creating a positive culture that goes beyond reading policies and actually puts them into action, she said.
Managers and supervisors should lead by example by acting professionally, she said, because if they don’t, it’s harder for employees to come to them for help. Even so, there should be another person in place who employees can go to if they can’t go to their manager, she said.
It’s important to keep in mind that sexual harassment isn’t harassment just because a comment was sexual, she said. It’s harassment because a manager can affect the terms of employment for the employee. Companies should have a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate remarks made toward other employees, St. Clair said.
When an employee reports a sexual harassment complaint, whether through the HR department or an anonymous channel, she said, the company must take immediate action to demonstrate to employees that it is being taken seriously.
When a complaint is made, it’s usually an employee speaking to his or her supervisor, Punke said, and either the supervisor takes notes or, if there’s a lot of detail, the supervisor asks the employee to put the complaint in writing. The person overseeing the investigation, all of which is recorded, should seek statements from people who might have been witnesses and then meet with the subject of the complaint.
Often, the conclusion is that there was a misunderstanding and a comment or action wasn’t intended the way it was received, she said. But the investigations bring the two parties together and make sure they know the rules of the workplace.