Setting a Hardline on Harassment
Both firms and their professional licensees must navigate new Illinois regulations governing sexual harassment prevention training.
Harassment in the workplace is a long-standing issue, one
that’s been historically shrouded and shushed. The tighter knit the
industry, the more severe the risk. Those who dared speak out
often found few redeeming resources or faced severe retaliation.
Seeking help could end the harassment—or it could end your
career. This fear of repercussion led to chronic under-reporting for
decades, but the impetus of the #MeToo movement is increasingly
bringing attention to an issue that went unseen and unspoken for
far too long.
“There have been more developments in anti-harassment law in
the wake of #MeToo than in all the years since harassment was
recognized as a legal claim,” says Laura Friedel, partner and chair
of Levenfeld Pearlstein’s Labor & Employment Group and chair of
the firm’s Women’s Initiative.
Attention and care are needed to understand the extents of
harassment in general, and sexual harassment in particular. Both
firms and their professional licensees must navigate new Illinois
regulations governing sexual harassment prevention training. Many
are quick to view new compliance mandates as a burden, but in
this case, there is a clear moral case and a business case. The issue
is much greater than a legal obligation—learning how to prevent
harassment simultaneously teaches us how to create a workplace
environment where all members are free to do their best work.
The first step toward preventing harassment is understanding
exactly what it is, says Diane Stegmeier, founder and CEO of Project
WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now) and the Stegmeier
Consulting Group. Stegmeier explains that harassment can include
bullying, micro-aggressions, quid pro quo, verbal aggression, and
exclusionary behavior, as well as sexual or physical harassment. “A
firm can’t only focus on sexual harassment,” Stegmeier cautions.
Further, uncertainty about what constitutes harassment often
translates into inaction; time goes by and it becomes more and
more difficult for victims to speak up. Stegmeier contends that the
burden of preventing workplace harassment does not belong to
individuals, particularly those who might be or have been harassed.
Rather, organizations must address harassment before it occurs and
when it occurs.
“Millions of dollars can be lost—and reputations destroyed—if
organizations don’t deal with harassment issues immediately,”
Developing a clear anti-harassment policy, accessible to all
employees, that provides resources and tools and maps out
actions is a good business practice and goes a long way in
preventing larger workplace problems. And, in the unfortunate
situations when harassment does occur, organizations with such
policies in place should be able to deal with issues quickly and
effectively before greater harm is done, says Marty Green, Esq.,
the Illinois CPA Society’s vice president of government relations,
who participated in negotiations with the legislative caucuses that
advanced the bills in Illinois mandating sexual harassment
prevention training starting in 2020.
“Whether a situation has occurred or not, people should be aware
that certain behavior is not appropriate and will not be tolerated,”
urges Illinois CPA Society member Irma Bondi, CPA, PHR, senior
manager of recruiting at Miller Cooper & Co. Ltd. A thorough anti-harassment
policy should emphasize that leadership is serious
about preventing and dealing with harassment, which is an attitude
that should filter down through the organization.
Stegmeier stresses that firms must also acknowledge that
harassment can occur not only between employees within the firm
but between firm members and their clients. In these cases,
leadership needs to be proactive.
“These are tough issues,” Friedel says, “but you need to protect
your firm. A clear anti-harassment policy sets the stage by defining
harassment, outlining the steps to take if harassment occurs, and
designating people and resources to contact. If your firm is not
large enough to have an in-house human resources person, then
establish a designated point person to receive and process any
harassment issues, both informal conversations or formal
complaints, or contract with an external HR consultant.”
TAKING ON TRAINING
Policy is one part of prevention; training that enables and equips
individuals is the other. “Mandating anti-harassment training as a
requirement for professional licensure will increase awareness,”
Bondi says. Starting in 2020, Illinois employers are required to
provide sexual harassment prevention training annually for all
employees. Recent legislation also requires all professionals
licensed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional
Regulation to take one hour of sexual harassment prevention
training as part of their continuing education.
“Licensed CPAs will need to complete this one-hour training as a
part of the 120 hours of CPE required for license renewal in 2021,”
“One hour is generally plenty of time to go over harassment
definitions, ensure understanding, walk through scenarios, and
have conversations about how to handle harassment,” Friedel says.
However, she recommends an additional module specifically for
managers and supervisors. “Managers have a responsibility to
protect their employees, to stop harassment when it’s happening,
and to respond appropriately when someone brings them a formal
or informal complaint,” she states.
No matter the audience, the best training is interactive and
customized. Stegmeier suggests employees need to role play
scenarios that are relevant in order to truly understand how to
respond in actual situations. “Customized training shows
employees that the firm sees keeping harassment out of the
workplace as a priority and empowers employees to speak up with
confidence that their concerns will be heard and that they can be
a powerful voice in the workplace,” Friedel adds, noting that
getting people to have these important conversations is anything
While Illinois law permits sexual harassment prevention training
through webinars and other online platforms, Bondi says she
personally feels that in-person anti-harassment training has
more of an impact. Interactive training provides individuals with the
tools, scripts, and practice they need to deal confidently with
inappropriate behavior. The right training enables individuals to
speak up and act, both for their own sake or for the sake of their
colleagues. After all, stopping an off-color joke or innuendo is a
responsibility every person can take on, but knowing how to do so
in a way that maintains professionalism and camaraderie is
important in the business world.
Disruption is a powerful strategy for preventing or stopping
harassment. For example, when a conversation veers inappropriately,
any individual can disrupt the flow: “Let's get back to the agenda
today. We have a lot to do.”
This type of conversational disruption can be a simple but powerful
tool, especially for junior colleagues or minorities who may feel their
positions are somewhat precarious. “For more marginalized groups,
it can help for them to use disruption. It doesn’t have to be
threatening. Taking a position of authority in any situation, even if
you’re new, even if you’re junior, can disrupt idle talk and bring the
attention back to what's important,” Stegmeier says.
Of course, some situations—verbal and otherwise—require a
stronger response than a conversational redirect. Some words and
behaviors must be called out directly and/or dealt with formally. In
these cases, you need employees to be able to reach to your
organization’s policy and follow its steps. However, if you’re in a
situation where there isn’t an existing anti-harassment policy,
Friedel advises going to the most senior person in the organization
that you’re comfortable talking to and discussing the situation
with that person.
“In extreme cases, when there is no one you can talk to within the
organization, seek external resources, such as the EEOC and the
Illinois Department of Human Rights,” Friedel advises. It’s important
to document what has occurred: when, where, what was said or
done, and who was present.
In professional services firms, preventing harassment from a
client may be the issue at hand. “These are difficult situations,”
Stegmeier says, who, along with Friedel, suggests it’s imperative
to get the highest level of the firm involved. “The senior partner
or manager can set the standard for how the business relationship
“The client organization will not want such behavior to continue,”
Stegmeier adds. “So, addressing it at a higher level, between senior
people at both organizations, is a way to disrupt the situation and
get it resolved.”
In the end, organizations that provide tools, training, and top-down
support reap the rewards: a culture of respect, loyalty, and freedom
for every person to do their best work.
“Wouldn’t we all be much more productive if we felt like we could
give it our all and not worry?” Stegmeier asks. “People need to feel
more courageous; they need to know that they can make a
difference—especially when harassment issues come up.”