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Stop It: Dealing With Onsite Harassment

Dealing With Onsite Harassment
January 2018

What to do when maintenance technicians and leasing professionals face uncomfortable work environments.

Inappropriate or unwanted behavior displayed by residents toward onsite apartment community staff has come into greater focus lately, especially in light of recently revealed scandalous behavior by those in Congress, Hollywood and an assortment of media companies. 

While harassment is a word often used to describe unwanted advances, it is not necessarily the proper term for claims of one-time incidents when, for example, a resident makes a pass at a leasing professional or maintenance technician, or if a resident refuses to allow a maintenance technician to enter their home. (See “Harassment Defined”)

Caydee McCormick, Chief People Officer at US Residential, says the line is blurred between inappropriate behavior and harassment.

“If management has strong and transparent communication with its employees, then any bad behavior can often be corrected before it becomes illegal harassment.”

Apartment operators lately are focusing even more on their protocols for reporting and responding to such “bad behavior” by third-parties. Companies are reconsidering their onboarding policies and training practices when it comes to workplace harassment and trying to create company cultures that promote greater trust between employees and their supervisors.

The recent revelations shared by employees with members of the media about persons in Congress, Hollywood, television and corporate America; and TIME magazine naming “Silence Breakers” its Person of the Year, honoring those who came forward, is having a pronounced effect across the workplace.

Inappropriate behavior by third parties can affect both the office operation and the community at large: 

  • Employees choosing to leave their company
  • Employees being reassigned to other locations in the office
  • Employees being reassigned to another community within the company
  • Employees’ increased absenteeism
  • Employees’ diminished work performances
  • Employees being restricted from interaction with residents in a given apartment home
  • The potential for resident eviction based on a lease violation related to the prohibited conduct clause in the NAA Lease as stated (see NAA Lease Language).

Apartment Workplace Scenarios

“We had a male leasing professional who was working in the property office during his last week on the job,” says apartment management consultant Susan Weston, CAM, CAPS, NAA Education Institute Senior Faculty of The Susan Weston Company in Dallas. “He had given notice and the residents knew he was leaving. One day, a female resident (an admirer) came to the office, immediately hugged him and pushed herself against him saying, ‘I can’t believe you are leaving us!’ This creeped him out.”

Because he worked in the outer office, the manager could overhear some of what went on, Weston says. The leasing professional complained to the manager, who immediately did two things:

To avoid a reoccurrence of the encounter, she moved him to a back-office desk for the remaining days he worked. She also immediately notified her supervisor, who then told the HR department, which began an investigation.

For the investigation, an extensive list of clarifying questions was prepared and sent via email to the now-former employee. Several additional exchanges were made to clarify actions from impressions and evidence to discuss with the resident. The manager and property supervisor met with the resident to discuss the incident in a non-accusatory, informational, but clarifying manner. Her conduct was perceived as outside the boundaries of client-agent relationship and could result in a lease violation. A non-accusatory or “you-might-not-be-aware” posture was taken. “We did not reveal all of our evidence, but had it if it was needed,” Weston says.

In another case, “our male maintenance tech made an apartment service call to repair a kitchen sink trap,” Weston says. “There, the male resident answered the door wearing only his underwear. When the tech laid down to reach under the sink, the resident knelt next to him and began asking him personal questions such as whether he worked out and what he liked to do after work. Another creepy experience!”

Weston says the technician scuttled from under the sink and did two things:

  • He made an excuse to the resident that he didn’t have the proper tool to do the job.
  • He reported the incidence to his manager, who in turn initiated an investigation.

Similar to the above, the employee was questioned for specific details—not impression—and the manager then met with the resident. Here, the resident was a bit more confrontational.

“We ended up allowing our tech to choose not to serve this resident for the length of his residency,” Weston says. “We received no other complaints from other techs – our challenge here was to maintain confidentiality of the details of the encounter.

In another alleged scenario shared, after having received a work-order, a maintenance technician knocked on a resident’s door and identified himself as maintenance. When there was no response, he cracked the door and called out to identify himself, but did not enter. Inside, a female resident heard him and screamed that she was in the shower. He closed the front door and immediately went to the manager’s office to report the situation. In less than 30 minutes, the resident contacted the property manager to report that “unknowingly and without her permission” the technician went into the apartment to view her showering.

The manager, knowing what had happened based on the technician’s earlier account, then had a conversation with the resident, soon to find that the resident was trying to get out of her lease early and wanted to use this incident as the reason. (See “NAA Lease Language”)

Now What

“If you are a victim of harassment, you must say something, Weston says. “You must report it. Most management companies have anti-harassment policies that require that any harassment— including third-party harassment—be reported. Taking the path of least resistance is not the way to go.

“As supervisors, we have to let our staff members know that we’ll stand by them when it comes to any and all forms of harassment.”

Investigations must be thorough, timely and precise. Capture, report, conclude, communicate, Weston says.

  • Third-party harassment (coming from a resident, a supplier partner, a contractor or any unrelated person) must be immediately met with a call to the crew foreman or the alleged harasser’s company. While the report may be a third-party recap (i.e., not witnessed), the manager must stand behind his or her employee and follow up in writing that the conduct must stop.

Third-party harassment from a resident may have unique issues:

  • If the conduct was not observed (reported only by the employee), the manager must reach out to the resident and, preferably in a private meeting, inform them that a report of harassment was made by an employee. While being careful not to accuse the resident, the manager should ensure that the resident knows that, if it is true, it represents a violation of law and specifically, the lease contract. 

“Explain to them innocently, ‘You may not be aware of this, but this conduct may upset people. If you were to have behaved in such a manner, it could constitute harassment,” Weston says.

Weston suggests recording such conversations or at least documenting them.

  • If the employee makes a report in writing (such as what occurred in the first example), the manager or investigator should be careful to ask many questions so that they fully understand exactly what happened and when or how. For example:
  • Describe the specific behavior and experiences exactly as they occurred without embellishment or editorial comment, i.e., “the person made me feel uncomfortable.”
  • Treat the questions as you would for any incident report about something that occurred on the property – time, date, place, witnesses and other details.

‘Honey’ and ‘Sweetie’

In some cases, harassment, while unintentional, if addressed appropriately, can preserve working relationships.

Weston cites a case where a tenured lead maintenance supervisor received a complaint about his interaction with a leasing professional. A young woman indicated she did not like that the supervisor referred to her as “honey” or “sweetie” or that he complimented her about her appearance. The maintenance supervisor came from a long line of West Texas families, where overriding support and care of females in the family was customary. Yet, he had to be advised.

In this case, when the conversation was held in the HR offices, he reacted respectfully but stunned when hearing that he had made the leasing professional feel uncomfortable. He had no idea that he had offended her and promised to make amends. He did, and the two were able to work together respectably at the community.

With HR, a Matter of Trust

Employees may be distrustful even if there is a workplace harassment policy in place, Weston says. For example, if a staff member is harassed by the lead technician and he and the property manager are “close” and the manager is “close” with the “property supervisor” (who is next in the reporting chain)—the employee may feel like they will not get a fair outcome when choosing whether to report or not report the incident. 

It is essential that companies offer employees multiple routes to get a supervisor’s attention so that they can be assured a fair assessment.

Some companies choose to use a third-party provider to administer such complaints and subsequent investigative work to avoid infringing on the personal feelings of those involved.

McCormick has worked in HR since 1999, including many years in real estate-related industries, and the past two at US Residential.

“The HR world, as a whole, needs to do a better job at being an approachable resource for its employees,” she says. “HR needs to be more visible in the workplace, they need to go onsite, for example, and talk to employees. Employees need to feel comfortable about speaking up about harassment without the fear of being retaliated against. 

“I’ve seen situations where employees don’t trust the HR department. This is very unfortunate and we need to find ways to change this perception. Too many times, workplace complaints come when the situation is beyond repair. In some situations, an employee might raise an issue and their supervisor will tell them, ‘Just don’t go to HR with this’ so that it doesn’t reflect poorly on them as a manager. Both managers and HR need to work together as a team to be more successful with employee engagement and communication.”

McCormick says if one of her company’s employees feels uncomfortable in their work environment, “we do look for mutual solutions. One solution we’ve used in the past is to transfer them to a nearby community.”

US Residential is in the process of revising its onboarding and training policies. Currently, it requires a one-hour anti-harassment training session; in California and for supervisors, two hours is required. This training is for newly hired associates and as part of our annual training requirement. This is primarily done through web-based training, but the company also focuses on in-person training by individual, community and region if necessary, McCormick says.

“When employees are involved in harassment situations that do not result in termination, once the investigation is complete and the results are determined, we have a conversation and explain the decision and why something may have or have not been viewed as harassment. We want them to understand why the other person felt the behavior was inappropriate. Examples could be something such as referring to a co-worker as ‘Honey’ or ‘Sweetheart.’ ”

Harassment can be a difficult topic in the workplace, McCormick says.

“I’ve had men express this as a concern,” she says. “Some are afraid to speak to women, not always knowing what is perceived as appropriate. This can even be as simple as a compliment. We don’t want men, or anyone for that matter, to be confused on what’s an appropriate conversation.”

HR is not blind to employee resistance about taking harassment training, McCormick says.

“We recognize that training can be an inconvenience with their day-to-day tasks,” she says. “At times, the response may be a roll of the eye or sarcasm. This can be a more common response if something is viewed as the new hot-button topic. Some don’t want to take harassment serious until it happens to them.”

Terry Brewer, Vice President of Human Resources at ROSS Management Services, says all complaints need to be investigated.

“Employees must report situations of harassment by residents,” she says.  “Each situation is dealt with by speaking with all parties; the accuser, the accused, and any witnesses.  After a thorough investigation,  appropriate action is taken to alleviate any future harassment.”

Brewer says all ROSS employees take part in annual training.

“We combine Harassment Awareness training with Fair Housing training; it’s a half day event  We require all new hires complete a web based harassment and diversity awareness training during their first 3 days of employment.”  We believe refresher courses serve as good reminders.”

Megan Orser, NALP, Director of Professional Development, Smart Apartment Solutions, says harassment is “a reality for our industry.”

“The biggest correlation I can find between this topic of resident and staff interactions and the topic of bullying and workplace harassment is that the solutions and methods to alleviate would be the same,” Orser says. “You must take all claims seriously. You must report, and you should most definitely have policies, conversations and training [diversity] to make an impact.

“I am alarmed when I hear people say they don’t think this is an epidemic; more specifically, that highly educated individuals in the apartment industry believe that bullying and harassment don’t affect our industry.

Orser says awareness is the first step toward stopping bullying.

“We have a responsibility as leaders, who are mentoring the leaders of tomorrow, to give them the tools to recognize workplace bullying and harassment and help be a part of the initiative to put a stop to it.”

Visto: Free Anti-Harrassment Training for Apartment Industry

On Jan. 1, 2017, California instituted new laws regarding training. Employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide, among other things, two hours of mandatory sexual harassment training to an employee within six months of assuming a supervisory position, and then once every two years, as specified. Additionally, mandatory sexual harassment training must cover harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, and practical examples of such harassment.

In late November 2017,  Grace Hill made available free to the apartment industry its sexual harassment training courses in English and Spanish through NAA Education Institute’s Visto at gowithvisto.org.

Prior to Grace Hill making sexual harassment training free for the industry, only one person had purchased any of the sexual harassment courses since they were posted to Visto on Oct. 1. In the first week after the sexual harassment training was available at no charge, the courses had been downloaded nearly 200 times, according to Grace Hill Director of Marketing Kimberly Cadena.

Grace Hill’s Sexual Harassment training is designed to help all employees understand the benefits of a respectful workplace, recognize what constitutes acceptable workplace conduct and know how to respond if they experience or witness harassment. Identifying and addressing sexual harassment behaviors can be difficult and uncomfortable; as with many tough situations, the more you know, the better chance you have of handling situations effectively when they arise. The training consists of four short courses. Each takes about 20 minutes to complete: Understanding Sexual Harassment, Types of Sexual Harassment, The History and Costs of Sexual Harassment and Your Role in Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment.

Additionally, Grace Hill’s Sexual Harassment California Supervisor course was updated in late December to address California’s new regulations. Practical examples of such scenarios are provided, and scenario-based practice and quiz questions were added to ensure that employees can apply what they’ve learned on the job.

Harassment: Defined

When considering inappropriate behavior that is reported, a check of the legal definition according to uslegal.com is worthwhile: 

First-degree harassment occurs “when he or she intentionally and repeatedly harasses another person by following such person in or about a public place or places or by engaging in a course of conduct or by repeatedly committing acts which places such person in reasonable fear of physical injury.”

A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person:

He or she strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects such other person to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same; or he or she follows a person in or about a public place or places; or he or she engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose.

NAA Lease Language

PROHIBITED CONDUCT. You and your occupants or guests may not engage in the following activities: behaving in a loud or obnoxious manner; disturbing or threatening the rights, comfort, health, safety, or convenience of others (including our agents and employees) in or near the apartment community; …

Paul R. Bergeron III, Director of Publications for NAA.