The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

4 Ways to Mitigate Risk Related to Sexual Misconduct and Harassment on Campus

When it comes to creating a safe, inclusive, equitable campus, culture is the bottom line. But changing the culture and transforming the mindset of an enterprise as large and complex and multifaceted as a higher education institution certainly doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a slow and steady journey.

While helping their colleges and universities navigate this bigger change over the long term, there are also things HR can do in the short term to help reduce risk, ensure fairness, and support institution-wide efforts to create a culture of safety and respect on campus.

Lynn Clements, formerly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and current director of regulatory affairs at Berkshire Associates, presented a CUPA-HR webinar earlier this year on how the #MeToo and pay equity movements are impacting employers, including higher education, and how HR can act in a strategic way to help their organizations not only respond to but also proactively address these issues.

In the webinar, Clements shared four actions HR can take to mitigate risk related to sexual misconduct and harassment on campus:

Identify Your Vulnerable Populations

Clements recommends taking a close look at your workplace’s vulnerable populations to ensure they are educated on what harassment looks like, what is and is not acceptable behavior, and how to report misconduct. These vulnerable populations include young workers, who typically don’t have a lot of experience in the work world; low-wage service positions (more than 20 percent of EEOC’s harassment cases over the past decade have involved low-wage service positions); women who work in male-dominated fields; and power imbalance situations (for higher ed, this includes the faculty-grad student relationship).

Audit Your Harassment Policies

Make sure your policies, procedures and training address all forms of actionable harassment, not just sexual harassment, and ensure that policies clearly prohibit retaliation and that witnesses are also protected from retaliation. Clements also recommends clearly spelling out what kinds of interactions are appropriate between faculty and students; confirming that your policy covers inappropriate behavior by third parties; having multiple avenues for filing complaints, including formal and informal mechanisms; and distributing your harassment policy to all employees at the beginning of employment and on a periodic basis thereafter.

Revisit Your Training

Revisit who provides and attends harassment training. “It’s not sufficient anymore for just supervisors to attend,” says Clements. “The audience should be broader than that.” It’s also important for senior campus leaders to attend training. Avoid “canned” and generic training. Instead, she suggests, employers should evaluate their areas of weakness and train around those areas and the issues specific to that particular workplace or industry. The EEOC strongly encourages unconscious bias training and bystander training as well, and prefers employers conduct sexual harassment training in-person as opposed to online.

Conduct Effective Investigations

The number one rule here, says Clements, is to investigate every harassment complaint, no matter how “minor.” Here are some ways to ensure investigations are fair, thorough and effective:

  • Define the purpose and scope of the investigation, in writing.
  • Determine whether the investigation should be conducted by an internal or external resource.
  • Investigate promptly, but don’t rush to judgement.
  • Maintain confidentiality to the greatest extent possible.
  • Ensure investigators are trained on unconscious bias; on all organizational policies and procedures related to workplace harassment and reporting; and on how to conduct a thorough investigation and write comprehensive reports.
  • Ensure that the due process rights of the accused are protected.
  • Document your investigation carefully — an outside party should be able to reconstruct the entire investigation from your report.

“By putting in place well-defined and consistent practices, policies and procedures related to harassment and reporting, HR can help their institutions build a solid foundation of respect and inclusion,” says Clements.

View Clements’ on-demand webinar, and read more about this and other risk management and compliance challenges and solutions in the current issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine. You can also find several sexual harassment-related resources, including toolkits, videos, webinars and articles, on the CUPA-HR website.