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Everyone Knows that Bad Behavior Is Not OK ... Right?

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This week's guest columnist is Kim Ferrarie, formerly Vice President of Human Resources for CB&I (now combined with McDermott) who now consults on employee engagement, diversity and compliance matters. For additional information on her work, please see

Lately, the news has everyone talking about bad behavior in the workplace. I recently completed an investigation for a client who seemed both surprised and disappointed in what they were hearing from their own organization. Several times I heard the comment, "but we do online code of conduct and harassment training here so I'm sure everyone knows the boundaries ... If something was going on, I know people would speak up." Given the results of the investigation, the only truth in that statement was that the company did yearly training.

Online Training: A Good Start or Waste of Time?

Online training programs are great tools to get messages across, track participants and helpful if your workforce is spread across multiple locations. Now, think about the times you've personally participated in this annual ritual. Were you completely engaged (this means not looking at your phone while you clicked through to get to the quiz so you could "pass")? Did the training resonate with you in a meaningful way (were the examples and explanations a fit with your work environment and colleagues)? Was there any follow-up after the training?

If you got past the first question with a yes, give yourself a hand. The sad truth is online training, while enabling organizations to say (and prove during investigation or litigation) that everyone was trained, does little to truly alter the conversation or behaviors in the workplace. Apart from several weeks of heightened awareness coupled with jokes along the line of "you saw the training, don't do that, you'll get sent to HR," the messages usually fade in to the organization shadows.

It's no wonder then that we continually hear about workplace incidents that make us shake our heads. Business has become compliantly complicit. Most organizations check the box with their training, but don't take the steps necessary to bring the policies to life in the workplace. Nothing about check the box training opens the pathway to frank, proactive discussion about harassment or about how a non-inclusive environment impacts individuals, business and culture. In this environment, it's easy to understand why the behaviors continue and why people don't speak up.

Creating a Culture of "See Something, Say Something"

What's curious is when it is a matter of life or death, or of preventing injury, industry and society seems to "get it" a bit better. We speak actively now about "see something, say something" in our everyday life. Think about how often you hear that phrase in airports and venues where people gather. From an industrial perspective, behavioral based safety also strikes that cord. To prevent workplace accidents, companies work hard to create cultures where speaking up about situations that are or could be unsafe is the norm.

Harassment and discriminatory behaviors are always going to be present. The infection is always there.

Where speaking up is rewarded, metrics track how proactive measures clearly lead to a safer or accident free environment. As part of this culture, many companies even start every meeting with a safety minute, talking about something all should be mindful of to prevent accidents and injury, whether at work or at home. I wonder how many meetings ever start with a minute devoted to talking about workplace harassment, or discuss why diversity and inclusion matter? Yet, when someone is subject to harassment or not included, the corporate culture is clearly injured. Not as dramatic as a workplace accident perhaps, but over the long term, equally as damaging for the individuals involved and for the organization overall.

There are certainly reasons why these topics are harder to talk about in the workplace. If I stand up and talk about a recent safety incident, I'm not worried about breaching confidentiality or harming someone's reputation. Most matters having to do with addressing workplace harassment or discrimination are cloaked in corporate secrecy—an anonymous call to the ethics hotline, a signed nondisclosure agreement. Some of this is understandable; some of it is silly. Once the poor behavior shows up on the front page of the New York Times, there are no secrets and it's too late to begin that genuine, ongoing dialogue.

What Does Work

Expecting online training to create an inclusive environment free of harassment and embracing diversity is the corporate version of taking two doses of a 14-day antibiotic prescription. You may feel better after two days, but the doctor always reminds you to take the full round of meds because the infection is not gone.

Companies feel better when they conduct online compliance training. However, harassment and discriminatory behaviors are always going to be present. The infection is always there. Companies that understand this will be proactive every day to assess their culture, engage their employees, create open dialogue about tough topics and immediately address even the small matters when raised.

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