Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Don't Sue Me Stuff: Harassment/Hostile Work Environment

When you become a manager, it isn't terribly often that someone sits down and carefully explains all the liability and responsibility you've accepted in so doing. A lot of the time they assume you just know (especially if you've managed people before).

This series of articles isn't about everything that could possibly happen, and it's not legal advice in ANY way. It's just sort of a heads up about what you may have gotten yourself into.

Today's Topic: Harassment/Hostile Work Environment

You have a female dev lead who is harsh with the male developers but otherwise normal with the female developers. What do you do? What happens when the team decides to ostracize someone and, through negligence and ignoring them, make the workplace unviable for them? How do you fix it? Are you liable for it? What do you do when two people are telling each other dirty jokes--and have since before this job, kindly out of the earshot of other employees--and suddenly one of them decides that they don't like it, after a recent bout of trading jokes? What if your client is the one who is suggesting things to a tester on your team in a potentially "ask a date" sort of way that is very close to potential harassment? How do you react if the tester asks for help to get out of the situation, or, potentially worse, asks if its okay to go out on a date with the client? What if you notice that your team has formed cliques, and that those cliques do not include one of your employees, who is never asked to lunch, snickered about (mostly) behind his back, and has trouble being treated like a full team member...?

Answering each of these questions individually would probably require a few months worth of blog posts, so here are some basic pieces of information, and suggestions (liberally) to contact your local HR to discuss things.

The moment you suspect you may have a harassment issue or hostile work environment issue on your hands, no matter what else you do, send an email to your boss summarizing your immediate concerns. As you strategize how to attack the problem, set a meeting with your boss and/or HR to discuss your next steps. This is very important so that you are not accepting the liability of the entire activity yourself--you are trying to do the right thing by the company and with the help of other members of the company. The sad thing about dealing with a potential sexual harassment or hostile work environment issue is that the moment you are made aware of the problem, your actions are potentially under scrutiny as a representative of the company; you could make it worse or you could make it better, and legally, you could be held responsible for either option.

As one HR person put it, "Hand it off as fast as you can." When you notify others of higher rank and in HR, they can either choose to leave it with you, going over plans step by step and sharing the responsibility, or they can choose to take the problem from you and handle it themselves.

For example, in one place where I worked, I got complaints that a developer was looking at scantily clad females on his machine. I talked to my boss and told him I'd like to confirm this allegation before getting HR involved, and he concurred with my suggestions to talk to IT. I asked IT to find the websites he'd visited and images he was storing on his company machine. He was viewing pictures of scantily clad women--they did have their clothes on, and they were not the primary subject of the pictures; those were the cars. He was viewing inappropriate (but not pornographic) material at work. At this point I went to HR and they took the entire thing from me (and the evidence IT had collected) and gave him a warning, but no further action was required from me.

So, step 1: Tell someone in authority what you suspect and why you suspect it, and get agreement on your plan of action.

Female Employee Harassing Her Male Counterparts

So, in the case of observing a female employee who may seem harsher with her male co-workers, follow step 1. The plan of action for this case is likely a sit-down with the employee to talk about how she talks to members of the team. This is not a "look how you treat Suzy, look how you treat Bob," conversation. This is a "here are some examples of behavior I didn't like and why, what can we do to remedy this," conversation. People can sometimes act in biased ways without knowing they are doing it, and making the discussion about whether or not they are biased is not productive to stopping the behavior. So make the conversation about the behavior and what you'd like to see instead. Follow up the convo with a quick summary of what you discussed and bcc your boss and (if you have involved them) your HR person.

In your weekly 1:1's with this person, check in with them on the behavior and confirm it is improving. Also, use your own observational skills. If the issue doesn't repeat within the next two weeks, keep your eyes and ears open, but its probably done. If it does happen again, then you will need to take more specific action; in this case you'll want to talk to HR about what you've seen and done, and then either hand it off to HR or talk to this person with the targeted perception that she may be biased against her male co-workers. I cannot stress enough how much you should talk to HR about how to have this conversation; its going to be rough and unpleasant, and you might want an HR rep there with you if they don't handle it themselves. At the conclusion of the conversation, you should have a new plan to check this behavior in place, milestones of measurement, and an expectation of what will happen if this plan isn't successful (lack of bonus, poor review, demotion, firing, whatever).

If this issue is reported to you by a male developer who is feeling picked on, follow the same steps as above, with the exception that after you talk to her the first time, you let him know the situation has been addressed. Pretty much, that's what you say "The situation has been addressed." Don't explain what happened or what you did. You can tell him that if he's still uncomfortable or unhappy he can talk it out with you or escalate to HR.

If she has progressed to requiring a second talk/HR intervention, you respond exactly the same way to the male or males reporting her. Note, if they report her again, you'll need to hand the entire thing to HR (no matter how they suggest you handle it) including having those folks give statements to an HR representative.

Dirty In-Jokes Make Someone Uncomfortable
It is not harassment if two people tell each other off-color jokes where only they two can hear and neither of them is bothered by it. However. If someone overhears them and is bothered by it, or one of them thinks more about it later and realized he is bothered by it, then it can be considered sexual harassment in the workplace (at least in Washington state).

Fun, right? This means sexual harassment is a subjective judgment in this case; if anyone listening is offended, now or in the future, then it's harassment. If not, then it's not.

The simplest solution is to tell them to knock it off entirely. They may have been doing it for years, but if it turns into harassment on your watch, you and the company are liable. If they want to talk to each other outside of work that way (say at lunch) they can do what they like off company premises and off company time, but you should encourage them to overall cut it out...because they work together they could try to make the argument that they are being harassed, even if done off the clock.

So, if you see/hear it, report it to your boss and HR. Talk to the folks and ask them to stop. Agree you are a party pooper or whatever it takes. If they continue with the behavior, take it up with HR and let them take over. You have no control over the subjective nature of how what is said is interpreted, but you do have control over what is said with your agreement and support.

Also, this probably goes without saying but I'll say it anyway, don't PARTICIPATE in this situation (or any others like it). It's nice to be liked by your team for sharing their sense of humor, but its really nasty to end up on the wrong side of HR and/or a lawsuit.

The Client is Interested in a Date
Now I'm just using the client as an example; this could happen if two of your employees try to date, as well. Laws vary by state, but the general gist is that you cannot have someone in a position of power in a relationship (or trying to start one) with someone over whom they have power.

This means that you could have two people of equal level--say two quality assurance testers--on your team that are dating because neither has any power over the other (although read about how sexual harassment is subjective above and you'll readily realize that this works up until the moment someone misunderstands something or there is a break up, at which point they can retroactively determine harassment), but you cannot (as manager) date an employee, and certainly a client cannot.

When the client is no longer a client, they may do so. However, if the attentions are unwanted, you'll need to meet with the client and explain the policy that they cannot date your employees and ask them to stop asking. In the case of a client--someone outside your power structure--you'll want to talk to HR about what you're going to say and even have them present if possible, but unlike an employee a plan to prevent things from happening can only be agreed upon, not enforced as part of their normal business duties. If the harassment continues, you need to escalate to and hand off the issue to HR as fast as your legs can carry you. You also may need to gran the employee in question some time off to avoid harassment and/or recover from it.

Cliques -- When Does Behavior At Work Become a Hostile Work Environment?
For the most part, behavior at work becomes a hostile work environment if someone feels that way. Or at least it should be treated as such, initially; this means you summarize for your boss and/or HR and meet with the aggrieved person or persons and ask about the behavior that they are finding intolerable. The difference, though, is where judgment comes in: if the team is cliquish and hasn't accepted this person, things can seem hostile without being that way. In this case, you need to talk to the various cliques and get someone to adopt him/invite him out. You as manager should occasionally suggest a team outing to reduce the affect of the cliquish behavior.

If however the groupings or individuals are saying hurtful things or doing things to another employee, you have to take things in another direction after initially reporting concerns to your boss and HR; you need to talk to HR and your boss about a plan that will encourage the correct behavior and punish the poor behavior. This may mean putting someone on a drudge duty they may not prefer while they reflect on a practical joke that did not work out as they'd hoped. This may mean you hand the entire thing over to HR, depending on how difficult and hurtful this person or persons has gotten.

Your Key Tools
Your key tools for managing a hostile work environment and sexual harassment are clear communication to those above you and in HR, investigation, and documentation. As much as you might like to be the awesome boss that just sort of lets people do what they do, you are an awesome boss, you're just not THAT awesome boss (who might also be going bankrupt from lawsuits).

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