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It’s Not Just Uber: Your Role In Preventing Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Much of the tech community is still watching, open-mouthed, as Uber attempts to deal with the repercussions of Susan Fowler’s blog post about her year working there.

In case you missed it, the ex-Uber engineer wrote a damning piece about her experience of both sexual harassment and discrimination at the ride-sharing giant.

While there is much finger pointing going on inside Uber (former attorney general Eric Holder has been hired by the board to conduct an independent investigation), it’s an important time to remember that sexual harassment is a common occurrence across the country.

Most estimates indicate that 40–75% of women and 13–31% of men experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

If you’re in recruitment, you could be forgiven for thinking this is an issue that’s peripheral to your daily work and focus. But remember, you’re at the front door of your company. You’re chief culture ambassador and salesperson — and you’re the point person for the next people coming into your organization.

The general counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council, Rae Vann says not only are recruiters not immune to these types of behaviors; they are also the gatekeepers.

“It’s important employers make a concerted effort to train their recruiters because they are often the first line and the first experience that a candidate will have with the company,” said Vann.

So, what constitutes sexual harassment?

The California Labor Law Digest describes sexual harassment as conduct such as “asking for sexual favors, sexual touching, or offensive language.” Not all sexual conduct in the workplace is illegal “sexual harassment.”

Generally, the conduct must be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or results in an adverse employment decision (such as a firing).

Sexual harassment can include conduct showing hostile treatment toward someone based on that person’s gender. Sexually harassing conduct does not need to be motivated by sexual desire.

The Digest notes that “Employers should focus on prohibiting all potentially harassing conduct and not worry about whether the conduct rises to the level of illegal harassment. If conduct has crossed the legal line, it is too late.”

Uber is not the only tech company with a problem

Michele Madansky is one of seven women who conducted research for Elephant In The Valley, a survey of women in tech that focused on sexual harassment. In 2015, they found:

  • 60% of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances
  • 65% of women who report unwanted sexual advances had received advances from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once
  • 1 in 3 have felt afraid of their personal safety because of work related circumstances

Madansky says that 60% of the women they surveyed were dissatisfied with the course of action

  • 39% of those harassed did nothing because they thought it would negatively impact their career
  • 30% did not report because they wanted to forget
  • 29% signed a non-disparagement agreement

“The sad thing is that Susan Fowler seemed to do everything right (documentation, reporting to HR, continuing to report, etc.) and the consequences did not work in her favor,” Madansky said.

“Among the 60% of women who have been sexually harassed in tech, only 10% reported an incidence to HR – this is going to further hold women back from going through corporate channels.”

Indeed, levels of sexual harassment, or even just garden variety discrimination, are suspected to be at levels much higher than what is reported.

The Role Recruitment Has to Play

Rae Vann was a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, which last year released a comprehensive report into the steps to address and combat harassment.

Vann says the right kind of training is absolutely imperative to nipping harassment in the bud.

“You can’t understand what noncompliance looks like if you’re not constantly talking about it in a meaningful, educational and developmental way,” she said.

Knowing the type of questions you can and cannot ask in a screening or interview is one thing. Actually applying that knowledge to a breadth of candidates from different walks of life is quite another.

Vann points out that recruiters and hiring managers can learn a lot from examining your likely reactions to actual situations where discrimination has been present.

“Let’s talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch hijab case that went all the way up to Supreme Court, a couple years ago. What would you do in that circumstance?” asks Vann.

“What are the best practices you would use to make sure that a well-qualified candidate is not ultimately disqualified without consideration of possible accommodations that could have been made?”

Using case studies as examples and running scenarios are a particularly helpful and practical way to prevent harassment as you hire new staff.

Vann says it’s hugely important that recruiters are well versed in the exact requirements and values of the company, so potential candidates are clear on those expectations from the very beginning.

To Find Alignment, Get Clear on Your Culture

Examining your workplace culture is a necessary first step to proactively prevent harassment, Vann points out.

“The first step is examining whether your culture is inhospitable to bullying and incivility and all the stuff that can and often does lead to actionable harassment. If it isn’t, then you need to start changing the culture in your organization.”

Most people grow up in different environments and with different ideas and expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate. That’s why it’s so important to create those ideas and expectations internally: they are part of your company culture.

Knowing what constitutes your company culture is paramount when hiring for cultural fit. If you don’t know who you are, how will you know whether someone will fit with it?

Articulate what values and practices define your business – and what actions. Then, it’s an immediate red flag when someone operates outside those values and the agreements you’ve made to protect and ensure those values.

Create a Culture That Doesn’t Tolerate Harassment

It’s exactly this type of workplace cultural alignment that employee insight company, Culture Amp, has been seeking to quantify with their platforms.

Their Global Head of People and Experience, Julie Rogers, said she felt sick to her stomach hearing about the Susan Fowler situation.

“It’s hard to know how culture like that gets started or why it’s allowed to fester,” she said.

In the case of Uber, the time to act would have been when they noticed all their women employees were leaving, a clear sign that the environment was not supportive of them.

“We have a responsibility as employers of human beings to ensure anybody who hears of someone feeling singled out, uncomfortable or unheard is empowered to respond to them appropriately.”

Know What It’s Costing You

Research has repeatedly shown that sexual harassment results in serious negative consequences in any socioeconomic group, at any level of education, and across cultures, countries, age groups, and vocations.

While companies might be concerned about the costs associated with legal fees should things go awry, the real cost can be far more insidious. Researchers estimate that sexual harassment costs organizations $22,500 a year in lost productivity for each employee affected.

Not to mention the mental health repercussions, subsequent training and brand damage that can be caused.

Hire to Grow Culture, Rather Than Maintain Status Quo

There’s a distinct difference between culture fit and culture add, says Rogers.

“We don’t necessarily look for culture fit because the risk of finding people who fit into an already established culture can lead to group-think – and you start to lose the opportunity for diversity of thought and opinion,” she said.

“What we do look for is culture add, which means someone who will bring a distinct perspective while still in alignment with our values.”

Rogers says it’s important to make sure the people who are doing the hiring are really involved and aware of the company culture and understand what they’re hiring for. (Read more about aligning your HR manager and recruiter here!)

During the recruitment process itself, she makes sure they are asking questions that reveal whether a candidate is aligned with the company’s values.

“It’s asking for examples of how they’ve behaved in certain situations and looking for whether they expressed those values. We’ll ask for examples of how they felt in that scenario.”

At 1-Page, in the later interview stages, we make sure the entire team meets the candidate. Ultimately, they are the people who have to work daily with this person, so it’s important they agree on the choice.


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