Last October, Greg Smith, chairman of Husch Blackwell, stood before more than 600 lawyers and staff members at a company retreat in St. Louis and declared that the law firm was adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment.
“This is important to us,” he said. “We’re not going to stand for this.”
Smith chose his words and timing well. As he spoke to the firm he helps lead, the nation was riding the crest of a wave of culture change that had swelled in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Instead of dealing with sexual harassment in a reactive manner, more and more businesses were becoming proactive and updating their relevant policies and training.
This wave of change continues to wash over the country. However, law firms such as Husch Blackwell, which has offices in 19 U.S. cities, are simply picking up their stride as they sharpen the rules that have guided them for years.
Hillary Klein, an employment law attorney with Husch Blackwell’s Chattanooga office, says the company has always practiced what it’s preached to its clients.
“As a law firm, we’re subject to the same laws as our clients,” she says. “So, we’ve always had policies and practices in place and have regularly updated them.”
However, Smith’s speech heralded an increased effort to fine-tune those policies and practices and then communicate them to Husch Blackwell’s labor force. Klein adds this endeavor rose out of the recognition that things might be happening that people aren’t reporting.
“The #MeToo movement emphasized the need to empower people,” Klein explains. “This is about empowering our people to speak up.”
Husch Blackwell is not encouraging its people to say their peace in the very public manner of the revelations that have rocked the entertainment industry. Rather, the firm has created a safe conduit for any employees who wish to report an issue: a firm-wide ombudswoman.
To ensure reporting goes directly to the top, Husch Blackwell’s executive board designated Diane Carter, a member of the firm’s executive and partner boards, to serve in this role. From her Austin, Texas office, Carter is available to confidentially speak with anyone who has something to say.
Carter’s reputation as an attorney who listens well, is considerate of different viewpoints and has good judgment led to her selection. Husch Blackwell’s leadership hopes these same qualities will encourage people who might have otherwise remained silent to approach Carter with their concerns.
Mike Alston, managing partner of Husch Blackwell’s Chattanooga office, says that while the firm’s employees can still speak with their managing partners or business group leaders, the ombudswoman gives them a reporting mechanism outside their office.
“Someone might be hesitant to report something to me because I’m the managing partner and we work together in a fairly small office, whereas they won’t hesitate to call Diane,” Alston points out. “That gives another layer of security to someone who’s been aggrieved.”
As a reminder that Carter has full authority to handle sexual harassment complaints, each partner, associate and staff member across the firm’s 19 offices has been issued a card with their name, Carter’s contact information and the motto, “Speak up.”
Even Alston has a card. “If you have something to say, you don’t have to tell your supervisor,” he explains. “You can go right to Diane and say, ‘I have a problem.’”
While Husch Blackwell’s executive board was creating and filling the ombudswoman position, the firm’s labor and employment attorneys tweaked their sexual harassment policies.
This undertaking was followed by the rollout of mandatory firm-wide training. “It’s important to have a good policy, but if people don’t know about it, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” Klein says.
The training focused less on the legal ramifications of sexual harassment and more on nurturing a workplace in which everyone is treated with esteem, Klein adds. “The idea was to not just cover the things that would rise to the level of unlawful harassment but also communicate our desire to create a culture of respect.”
Klein trained Husch Blackwell’s Chattanooga people on the new policies. Everyone from the top down – including Alston – participated, and the training was done in person. Moreover, since everyone’s role differs, Klein trained managers, attorneys and staff separately.
While the sessions covered the conduct the firm expects, Klein focused more on persuading people who either experience or observe improper behavior to step forward. “We let everyone know this firm supports their efforts to improve the environment and remedy these issues,” Klein says.
To emphasize appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, Klein led several scenario-based discussions.
In one, a hypothetical associate, Julie, is receiving unwanted attention from another hypothetical associate, Kevin. Julie goes to a hypothetical partner, Mike, and issues an informal statement. “I don’t want you or the firm to do anything, I just want you to be aware of it,” Julie says.
Klein led the group in a discussion about what the partner should do. “We said the partner should pass Julie’s statement on to the ombudswoman,” she says. “She’s the one person chosen to hear about these kinds of things, so she’ll know if it’s an isolated event or if five other people have come forward about Kevin.
“Just because this might not seem like a big deal, we want to push this through all the channels.”
Klein notes this does not mean the firm will take disciplinary action against Kevin, but it will help Carter to identify when a problem might be bigger than it seems.
Klein also discussed what occurs when a company has allowed a culture that’s not respectful to develop, including employee turnover, low morale and decreased productivity.
But she remained focused on the topic of cultivating an environment in which the firm’s lawyers and staff will want to stay. “We’re concerned about the legal ramifications of sexual harassment, but our focus was on fostering a culture of respect,” Klein says.
Like plants, this culture will need water from time to time to thrive, so Husch Blackwell will be training its people on a regular basis. The firm is also working to put education in place for new hires.
Another Chattanooga law firm, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, recently reviewed its sexual harassment policies as well but didn’t change them, having decided “they were in good shape.”
“We’re always looking at our policies,” explains Rosemarie Hill, head of the firm’s labor and employment section. “We’re hypervigilant about these issues because we have a strong labor and employment section and we do what’s right for our employees.”
However, during a recent training session on diversity, inclusion and discrimination, the firm did discuss sexual harassment. Hill says Chambliss has not done this training annually in the past, but in light of the #MeToo movement, is committed to covering the topic during a yearly event.
Unlike companies which are spurred to action when sexual harassment has occurred within its walls, Hill says Chambliss has not had a report of improper behavior in the 11 years she’s been with the firm.
Regardless, she preaches preparedness to her clients and warns them against becoming complacent.
“It’s important to keep talking about sexual harassment, even if it’s just sending an email reminding everyone of your policy and asking everyone to stay vigilant,” Hill continues.
When a company fails to do its due diligence, the results can be disastrous, Hill adds. “Sexual harassment training is one of the few defenses employers have when facing legal action arising out of an incident involving its people,” she says. “You need to be able to say, ‘We have a policy, and we made everyone aware of it. They know to report this behavior and we know how to investigate it.’
“That way, if you’re blindsided by a lawsuit, but no one has complained to you or given you an opportunity to fix what happened, then you have a policy that says the employee should have come to you and they had training that instructed them to do so.”
If a company that has not trained its people on procedure tries to defend itself against a sexual harassment claim on the grounds it was never made aware of the behavior, a judge or jury might not be sympathetic, Hill says.
For all of the talk about law firms protecting themselves from legal culpability, Hill adds the biggest motivating factor at Chambliss has been the human one.
“We want to do what the law says we should be doing,” Hill continues. “But beyond that, we don’t want our people working in an atmosphere in which they experience any sort of discrimination or harassment.”