How to Create Effective Harassment Policies Abroad
By Rosie Ranauro, Senior Associate, HR Advisory
In the US, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement have focused an unprecedented wave of attention on the problem of workplace harassment. In a recent survey, 66 percent of executives ranked sexual harassment as the most or second-most important issue on their radar. Prominent executives in entertainment and business have lost their jobs. HR departments everywhere are scrambling to revise policies and training and examine their company cultures.
But abroad, the picture can be very different. Some countries have strict laws against sexual harassment, while others have laws but don’t enforce them, and still others have no laws addressing the subject at all. Some have mandatory harassment training and reporting. Some subsume harassment under the more general category of bullying.
No other country has addressed the issue of discrimination with as much depth and precedent as the US, where the leading treatise on the subject runs to 3,500 pages. To deal with harassment abroad, multinationals must realize they are starting from a different base. Simply translating home-based policies and training into a new language for use in another jurisdiction isn’t the answer.
While multinationals must learn to navigate relevant foreign laws, they also need to realize that harassment is just as much about culture. Keeping that consideration in mind, here are some steps you should take to deal with harassment issues in foreign offices.
Don’t Assume US Laws Apply
US anti-harassment policies have their basis in three laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. All are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
To what extent do these laws apply to employees in your foreign offices?
For non-US citizens, they don’t apply at all. And while they are supposed to apply to US citizens working abroad, there’s a glaring exception: If compliance would violate a law in the country where the foreign office is located, the employer is not required to enforce it.
As a hypothetical example, the EEOC cites the case of “Sarah,” a US worker based in the Middle East who is denied a promotion because the country’s laws forbid women from supervising men. Sarah could file an EEOC claim, but it wouldn’t get anywhere because the employer is not required to follow the US law.
Americans who grew up with civil rights and discrimination laws and regular news stories about their application may be surprised to learn that they don’t necessarily obtain in other countries. If you’re sending workers abroad, they should know what to expect. You should also talk with foreign managers about cultural differences to avoid surprises and find common ground where possible.
Modify Your Policies and Training
In the wake of recent scandals, many American companies have adopted “zero tolerance” policies against harassment. The policies cover not only sexual harassment, but harassment based on any legally protected categories, i.e., race, ethnicity or religion.
Protected categories vary by country, and a zero tolerance policy is not likely to win acceptance in certain cultures, especially if there are fewer women in the workplace. Attempting to enforce them could backfire and hurt the victims you are trying to protect.
Instead, get to know the culture you’re operating in and consult with executives and employees to learn what’s culturally acceptable and what’s not before rewriting your policy and training modules. For example, in Europe, where cheek-kissing is routine, a “no kissing” rule won’t work. Workplace dating rules are also unlikely to go over well in many countries.
In your training, instead of taking a broad, didactic approach, focus on real-life situations that your managers or employees see as problems. If they want to resolve them, they will be more receptive to your policy.
Don’t Just Provide a Written Policy — Talk About It
Even a policy that’s sensitive to the local culture may not be taken seriously in places where it’s not the norm. Hold meetings to explain it and above all, to discuss it. A lifeless document is easily forgotten, but conversations with real people aren’t. In a face-to-face meeting, employees are more likely to believe you take the words on paper seriously.
Those who don’t feel comfortable engaging in discussion may still be influenced by it. Cultural change happens gradually as people are exposed to new ideas. And it works both ways. Insights you gain from meetings can lead you to further modify your policies or change the way they are enforced. On a broader level, they will help you see your own laws and cultural norms in a new light.
Set Up Private Channels for Complaints
In countries with few protections, employees may be too intimidated to complain about harassment. In fact, complaining can result in real career or reputational damage. Make sure you have at least two different channels for complaints so that employees aren’t stuck going to their supervisor (who may be the source of the problem). You can also set up a phone line or chatbot for anonymous complaints. Have them forwarded to more than one person to lessen the chance that they’ll be buried or ignored.
Be sure to document everything. Continue to monitor the situation regardless of the outcome so that you can put a stop to any adverse after-effects employees may experience.
Know Local Laws
Harassment laws vary enormously from country to country.
Singapore has none. Chile, Costa Rica, India and Japan require employers to have a written policy. Costa Rica, India, and South Korea require periodic training. Some countries require complaints to be investigated, but employers who do so may encounter hostility and backlash.
Many countries, including France, Belgium and Sweden, don’t address harassment per se, but have laws against bullying (or in France, “psychological harassment”).
While it’s essential to know and comply with local laws, understanding the culture surrounding them will help you more on a day-to-day basis. There are no easy answers for reconciling foreign customs with Western traditions and beliefs, but keeping communication channels open and maintaining an attitude of mutual respect will go a long way towards warding off problems and settling disputes amicably.