#Equality in the Workplace: Everyone’s Responsibility

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Though sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is an age-old problem, there was a seismic shift in 2017. The #MeToo social media movement helped spark that change. When social activists encouraged survivors to tweet about the magnitude of the problem, it was like opening a door to a room on fire. The phrase has been tweeted and retweeted millions of times, often revealing devastating personal accounts of sexual harassment or assault.

"When you combine the brave openness that women are willing to express with the growing power of social media, we have finally come to a point where these critical issues can be brought to the forefront of our attention without any filtering by men in positions of power," says Mark Ford, president and managing partner of Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates (POA) and Handspring Clinical Services, Middletown, New York. Ford has more than 20 years of experience in O&P and now works with ten clinicians in nine locations.

"Although the long-term effect of the #MeToo movement is unknown, the large-scale oppression of women is being exposed," says Laura Katzenberger, CP/L, director of clinical services for POA and Handspring. She is also the director of the residency program at POA. "I see and hear the discussion of the topic not only in the media, but in the workplace and at the dinner table, which didn't occur so readily prior to this past year," she says. "Ultimately, I'm hopeful this paradigm shift will lead to gender equality across the board from opportunities, pay, and representation."

Media attention has focused largely on sexual harassment—which is primarily motivated by a desire to exert power and control—by Hollywood and political figures, but this issue affects every profession. And while it may be easy for small businesses to overlook the importance of taking active steps to promote a culture of respect and equality, small organizations do not operate in a vacuum; it remains in a company's best interest to have policies, training, and resources that address sexual harassment to protect not only the employees, but the business, as well as empower the women and men who may be the target of harassment.


Question, Listen, Respond

Ford says addressing harassment in the workplace is a three-step process. First, become educated about sexual harassment in healthcare. "Read about it, watch webinars, and attend seminars," he says.

Second, "start a discussion within your own team, and as part of that process be very conscious to actively listen to the feedback you hear," Ford says.

And finally, keep asking questions, keep listening, and keep responding, he says. "The topic of sexual harassment is not a single event where you can update your employee manual and everything will be perfect," he says. "Being a true leader requires vigilance in handling the hard topics that impact every member of your team."

In an effort to address the issue of harassment in the workplace, Katzenberger says she has decided to make sensitivity a topic of every annual review she conducts in 2018. "As a company, one of our seven core values is ‘do the right thing,' and due to the current climate that means that every employee understands the boundaries of communication and behavior."

Sexual harassment is just one issue within workplace safety and equality that must be addressed. Katzenberger also says it's important to review employee compensation to ensure there are no imbalances related to gender, race, religion, or sexuality.

To address various types of harassment in the workplace, The National Park Service conducted a work environment survey from January 9 to March 5, 2017. The survey was sent to the park service's 18,550 employees, with more than half completed. The results revealed that an estimated 38.7 percent of employees experienced some form of harassment and/or assault-related behaviors in the 12 months preceding the survey. A sampling of results showed:


        22.9 percent experienced harassing behaviors based on age

        19.3 percent experienced gender harassment

        10.4 percent experienced sexual harassment

        9.5 percent experienced harassing behaviors based on their racial or ethnic background

        7.2 percent experienced harassing behaviors based on their religious beliefs

        4.5 percent experienced harassing behavior based on their sexual orientation


A Solid HR Policy

The number-one item business owners should have in place is a harassment policy in their employee handbook, says Faith Holloway, MBA, PHR, SHRM-CP, FPC, a human resource business partner with ADP Resource.

"They need to communicate that policy to their employees and then have them sign off on it so that they have acknowledged it and they understand it," says Holloway, who has worked in human resources for more than a decade.

In addition, Holloway says employers should take the time to educate their employees on harassment. "Harassment can look and mean different things to different people," she says.

Having a well-informed policy in place is the first step an O&P practice can take, Ford agrees.

One of the most effective ways of addressing harassment or violence in the workplace is to create a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing their experiences with their colleagues and with management. Ford says POA is creating a new internal group to update its human resource materials, including the company's guiding principles related to working with equality and respect throughout the practice. "We plan to review these new guidelines with our entire organization at our summer meeting in July," he says.

An interprofessional team will include administrative staff and clinicians from all POA's locations. The group will review and ultimately rewrite the company's 17-year-old HR policy and procedure manual, which will emphasize its discrimination policy as well as creating onboarding procedures. "In a recent conversation our management team had about the topic of sexual harassment, we were all surprised to learn that one of the managers has [been] a rape counselor," Katzenberger says. "She was able to bring knowledge and a sensitivity to the dialogue that I thought was very powerful."


Beyond an HR Policy

A sexual harassment policy in the employee handbook is only a first step. The HR department or representative needs to ensure that those policies stay enforced and staff members stay well informed about them, Holloway says.

Ford says POA's plan is to create a process for new POA team members to follow when they join the company. "This new onboarding process will cover all aspects of our HR expectations for all team members as well as outlining our [other] expectations…," he says.


More May be Better

It is no surprise that despite the #MeToo movement, which has emboldened many victims to come forward publicly, there are many who remain silent.

It is difficult to know why some victims refuse to come forward, Katzenberger says. "I can imagine that it would be fear of losing their jobs, past history of abuse, and fear of exposure," she says. However, Katzenberger adds "providing a zero-tolerance workplace policy and guaranteeing that they won't lose their jobs could help encourage victims or witnesses to come forward."

Ford believes some victims stay silent because they simply have no choice. "Often the perpetrators of these actions are the same people who have the power in an organization, and that creates a situation in which the perpetrators have a high level of control over their victims," he says. "The scenario makes it extremely difficult for victims to feel comfortable in coming forward with their truth."

To offset this control factor, organizations can create a structure where multiple people have portions of authority over staff instead of having all power and influence concentrated with one person. "Creating a workplace where more people are involved with managing the daily workflow reduces the power that one individual can hold over others on the team," Ford says.


Beyond the 24-Hour News Cycle

Finally, since the attention may last only until the next major news story, O&P companies can take action within their own practices to ensure that this issue does not become yesterday's news and instead leads to lasting changes.

The Futures Without Violence website suggests that small businesses create a workplace policy that addresses violence and sexual harassment and review it regularly. In addition, a business' performance review process should be regularly re-evaluated. Supervisors should rethink what constitutes a "high performer" or a "good supervisor," to assure that such terms are used equitably and without bias.

Ford says the most important thing an O&P practice can do is listen, discuss, and listen some more. "The reality is that workplace environments can easily turn into places where power is used inappropriately," he says. "The more open of an environment that owners and leaders of an O&P practice can create, the more likely that workplace will treat everyone equally."

Ford emphasized that it's critical that O&P owners expand their horizons about who they select as leaders in their organizations. "Consciously considering how to add more diversity to the leadership in O&P practices will further reduce the likelihood that power can be consolidated and used inappropriately in our business."

Holloway agrees and adds that preventing workplace harassment begins and ends with the top leadership. "The onus is on them," she says.

Katzenberger says that ongoing sensitivity training could be beneficial. "Plan annual sensitivity and discrimination training not only on gender, but on race, religion, and sexuality."

Ford says there is no going back at this point. "From my perspective, the discussion of sexual harassment cannot be returned to the shadows and will likely give a path to follow for other social topics that need to be addressed within the U.S. workplace."

Finally, every person in the workplace should be engaged, according to Futures Without Violence. The most effective way for harassment, violence, and bias to be eradicated from the workplace is for everyone to become part of the solution.


Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at betta@opedge.com.