Wake Up Call – Update Your Sexual Harassment Policies for Unconscious Bias

Regardless of the number of high profile harassment cases, trainings and warnings, sexual harassment liability continues to be a major threat for employers.  A recent CareerBuilder study found that office romances reached a 10-year high in 2016.  41% of employees surveyed stated that they have dated a co-worker and of those, 38% kept the romance a secret.  The drilldown statistics are even more troubling:

  • 19% reported affairs that involved at least one party who was married
  • 29% of office affairs involved workers having dated a person in a more senior position
  • 15% of the office romances included a subordinate reporting his or her boss

Of course, dating and office romance do not necessarily mean sexual harassment, but all too often- what may be “love” today, can turn into “harassment” tomorrow.  It is for this reason that employers should develop strict policies discouraging office romance and prohibiting sexual harassment and retaliation.

It is challenging however to address dating and fraternization, particularly between supervisors and subordinates.  It is easy for a subordinate to claim harassment and allege a “quid pro quo” work connection.  The teeth in these cases is that an employer can be “vicariously” liable for the inappropriate actions of its managers.  Thus, an employer finds itself responsible for making sure that supervisory power over a person’s position plays no part in the romance.

One of the few means by which employers have defended these allegations has been by creating training on, and enforcing policies that prohibit are by prohibiting the activity all together (99% of HR managers surveyed stated their companies prohibit these relationships).

New Policy Consideration

One new policy consideration is the challenge to write a policy that is free from conscious or unconscious bias and to make sure these polices are enforced consistently and even handedly across the organization.  One such concern is known as the heteronormative bias.  In short, this means looking at situations through a heterosexual lens and thereby failing to consider same-sex relationships.  Relationships can take many forms and are not restricted to the classic male supervising female structure. Polices and trainings must now be written with this bias in mind.

Limiting Causes of Action

There have been several cases in the last few years wherein employees terminated under sexual harassment policy violation and/or no fraternization policies alleged discrimination based on gender and sexual preference.  While this cause of action may not be the first thing that pops into a manager’s head, it ought to be of concern to HR.  While there is nothing new about the requirement of HR to apply all policies even – handedly, there has been an increased focus in the last several years on unconscious bias.  Supervisors in their roles and representatives of the employer, and particularly HR leaders, must be vigilant in protecting against unconscious bias in the application of policies.


Consider this a wakeup call to review your sexual harassment policies.  Many employers have not updated no fraternization and no sexual harassment policies in many years.  Be sure to also update slides for sexual harassment training, case studies and online trainings to make sure there is not a cultural, gender, or preference bias of any type which would allow your training materials to be used against you.  Our experience is that most HR leaders want to do the right thing in this area and taking steps to try to guard against unconscious bias can only help if a charge for lawsuit is filed.

Paul Finkle, SPHR, CMC – Executive Vice President

Disclaimer: Some information contained herein has been abridged from numerous sources and may be protected by various copyright laws. Such information should not be construed as consulting or legal advice. Please contact our office for specific advice and/or referrals.

Bay Area Human Resources Services

New Leader Onboarding vs. Orientation: What’s the Difference?

Transitions are a critical time for leaders.  Moving into a new role or a new organization is one of the biggest challenges a manager will experience.  While transitions offer a chance to start fresh and make needed changes in the organization, they also place leaders in a position of acute vulnerability.  Missteps made during the critical first three months in a new role can jeopardize or even derail success. A quality onboarding process, even for internal transitions, can be a critical differentiator.

In his book, The First 90 Days, Dr. Michael Watkins offers proven strategies for conquering the challenges of transitions and draws an important distinction between “on-barding” and new manager and “orienting” one to a new role.  So, what’s the difference?  His research shows that there is a big difference and addressing the distinction can help set the manager up for success.

The Difference Between Orientation and Onboarding

New employee orientation is an event that typically occurs on the first day of employment.  It is usually a one-way flow of one-size-fits-all content intended for a variety of positions.  The audience of new employee orientation is typically externally hired associates of all levels and the process is typically owned and led by the human resources function.  Orientations are often classroom-style and focus on the logistical and tactical information and provides a one-way exposure and view to the organization’s culture.

In contrast, onboarding is a process that begins upon acceptance of the role and typically lasts through the first 90 to 180 days.  The process is designed to provide an organizational overview to a diverse group of new employees with consistency, yet with context to the employee’s situation.  Onboarding allows information to flow through several different channels from the organization to the new employee and from the new employee to the organization.

The best onboarding experience is customized by a new employee’s role in a particular department of the organization and requires a close partnership between HR and key stakeholders.  A quality onboarding process is integrative, strategic and delivers functional and role-specific information to the individual employee in a just-in-time model.

Creating an Onboarding Experience

An onboarding program should lay out the specific roles and responsibilities of all the participants involved in onboarding new leader.  The reporting executive, the HR partner, and the new employee are all key participants in the process and should all have specific content that they deliver during the process.  By leveraging technology, employers can track and coordinate the process, and open key lines of future communication while making the new leader feel supported and socialize quickly into the new role.


When a leader is promoted or transitioned internally, many employers pass over the critical step of onboarding. The threads of a good culture fabric require weaving.  In other words, assuming that the leader already knows the organization and the values and objectives of the new role, often passes over key points that could be covered or reinforced in a quality onboarding.  Given the well- known evidence that most people leave bad supervisors as opposed to bad jobs, early investments in making managers the best they can be are like to provide a positive return for the organization.

Saul Macias, MBA, PHR – Vice President HR Services

Disclaimer: Some information contained herein has been abridged from numerous sources and may be protected by various copyright laws. Such information should not be construed as consulting or legal advice. Please contact our office for specific advice and/or referrals.

Bay Area Human Resources Services