Sexual Assault in the Media: 4 Steps to Address the Workplace Impact

As the events of the Kavanaugh hearing have dramatically unfolded over the past week, I have been struck by the number of women who are unexpectedly reliving previous sexual assaults through the detailed testimony of Dr. Ford.

As a long time HR practitioner, it is hard to ignore the impact these events have on employees’ emotions, mental health and overall focus. It would be a missed opportunity not to address the toll this is taking on the ecosystem we call work. Since we spend more time at work than we do at home with family and friends, we would be well served to consider the number of people (men and women alike) who find themselves excavating the past and trying to better understand it.

Sexual Assault in the Media: How to Address the Workplace Impact

I highly encourage organizations to take this opportunity now, while the topic of sexual assault dominates the news, to highlight the resources and messages that make your company’s policies and culture strong. Here are four things leaders can do over the next few days to have an impact:

1. Be observant.

There may be individuals among your employee base who are seriously impacted by the reminder of a past personal assault.  Some people will experience a form of PTSD that could affect their performance. Cue leaders to look out for absences or behaviors that might be out of the norm.  Some employees, even top performers, might need to process a part of their history and we should be prepared for this ripple effect.

2. Be upfront.

Whenever possible, organizations benefit from being upfront and honest about what is likely on everyone’s mind.  This past week especially, there was a barrage of messages, from the Kavanaugh hearing to the Cosby sentencing. I encourage managers to make a quick statement before a weekly team meeting.  For example, “It’s hard to ignore what is going on in the news these days, some of it very upsetting. We have plenty of confidential resources available that may actually be helpful to deal with this stress.  I will be sending a list around later today and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”

3. Reinforce policy.

Now is a great time to remind staff about important policies already in place.  For example, guidelines around training requirements, reporting paths available to employees and even things like after hours parties.  In fact, one study shows that fewer employers plan on serving alcohol at holiday parties this year (48%, down from 62% the year before).  Alternatively, Vox Media limits employees to two alcoholic drinks at its holiday parties to try and prevent inappropriate behavior. During this time of heightened awareness, employees are likely to really take these messages to heart.

4. Communicate broadly.

We are constantly communicating internally – from town halls to weekly email updates.  Coordinate with your internal communications group to see where language about employee resources or company policies  can be inserted to make the most of the public’s hyper-focus on the difficult topic of sexual assault.

Employees may find that Dr. Ford’s testimony spurred a second phase of #MeToo.  People realize they may have experienced an event similar to the one reported by Dr. Ford.  As her story was told, many re-lived a moment when they were physically overpowered or frightened for their safety. These people work in our organizations – from executive assistants to executive directors.  While there are limits to what we can do as employers, the tools and resources that we make available to employees will play a significant role in how well they can process these events and how quickly they can re-focus on doing the work they love.

With the FBI investigation related to the Kavanaugh hearing coming to a close, people can expect another round of highly emotional reporting coming their way.  This barrage of messaging on how pervasive sexual assault is creates a level of stress, anger and distraction that is worthy of addressing head on. To learn more about how Inspire works with clients to create honest and supportive cultures, contact me at [email protected] or (917) 612-8571.