Predictions and prevention of COVID-era workplace harassment

Remember the workplace harassment scandal at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show?” Aware that gaming company Activision recently reached an $18 million settlement with the U.S. government over allegations of sexual harassment? 

Those big stories made the headlines; imagine how many instances of workplace harassment happen on a daily basis. Answer: Up to 76 per day, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Select Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace.

Stephen Dwyer, Esq., SVP and chief legal and operating officer of the American Staffing Association (ASA) — the trade group that represents the staffing, recruiting, and workforce solutions industry — served on that task force. And he has plenty of insights to share about workplace harassment in the aftermath of #MeToo and in the age of COVID

Like the fact that charges of harassment come at a steep cost for organizations: Since 2010, employers have paid out $698.7 million to employees alleging harassment through pre-litigation alone. The numbers don’t lie: This is still a top-of-mind workplace issue that should be taken seriously by leaders, HR departments and professionals alike. 

We talked to Dwyer about discuss workplace harassment in 2021 and got tips on how to combat it. 

What do you wish all professionals knew about workplace harassment in 2021?

Workplace harassment is still a prevalent workplace issue. While many workplaces made progress in the aftermath of #MeToo, more needs to be done on a sustained basis – including consistent employee training.

What’s the most pressing workplace challenge right now?

COVID-19 remains the most pressing issue facing workplaces. Whether it’s issues pertaining to workplace safety after returning to offices, or work/life balance and childcare obligations, COVID-19 has completely revolutionized how U.S. workplaces function.

Are there things beyond harassment that we should pay more attention to?

Workplace culture. Almost everything – productivity, employee fulfillment and satisfaction, retention, and attrition – flows from workplace culture, and there are myriad components that go into cultivating and maintaining a successful culture. These include respect, flexibility, mission, and transparency, among others.

How do hybrid and remote work models impact organizations’ efforts to combat harassment?

Remote work can make harassment less visible to coworkers or managers, and therefore, perhaps, more difficult to address. It may occur one-on-one online, where others will not witness it. Workplace harassment during remote work is one more reason why constant communication between supervisors and their employees is critical – to check in on the employees’ wellbeing and determine whether there are issues that need to be addressed promptly.

What are your top predictions in the workplace harassment policy landscape for 2022?

As vaccination rates increase and more businesses return to their brick-and-mortar locations, I would expect workplace harassment to receive renewed attention from both employers and legislators, with perhaps new mandatory training laws being enacted at the state and local levels.

How would you like to see the workplace harassment conversation evolve in the next few years?

Hopefully, the conversation will evolve to where organizations view harassment training as a critical component of their strategic plans.

What are your top tips to combat workplace harassment effectively as an individual contributor?

Engage meaningfully in the harassment training offered by your employer – do not merely go through the motions and check the box to fulfill the training. Recognize and understand that you owe it to yourself and your organization to be fully invested in the training. In the event you experience or see someone else experiencing harassment, promptly speak up to the appropriate leaders in your organization.

What about on an HR or leadership level?

If you are a manager or a supervisor, lead by example. Let employees know that harassment will not be tolerated and act on your words; promptly discipline offenders, and do not let transgressions go unaddressed. Create a culture in which there will be no retaliation for complaints and bystanders are empowered and have a duty to report harassment that they have witnessed.