Spotlight: Virginia Capezio from TriNet Talks About How Biotech Companies Can Tackle the Tough HR Considerations in 2018

Virginia Capezio is a senior human resources consultant with TriNet, a company that provides full-service HR solutions to small and midsize businesses. Here, Virginia talks about the changing landscape of the biotech workplace, how broader trends may be affecting the environment and the big HR issues biotech companies should be thinking about in the new year.

Sexual harassment has been in the news a lot lately. What is the biggest risk to biotech companies with regard to sexual harassment?

There are three major risks to businesses in regard to sexual harassment. The first risk is not proactively putting processes in place to help prevent harassment.

The second risk is not being prepared for a harassment claim, which would include not responding to an allegation or responding inappropriately. For example, telling someone who is alleging harassment “that’s just Joe” or “that’s just our culture” or “that’s a customer so we can’t address your concern.”

Then there’s the risk of not responding appropriately to a harassment allegation. This means taking measures that can be seen by the complainant as retaliation–such as moving them to another department or location–or not taking appropriate disciplinary measures against the person who is found to have committed an action that is harassment or a violation of your company policy.  You must always take timely and appropriate action based on the results of a thorough investigation.

What steps should a company take to prevent harassment from occurring?

For starters, there are a few steps that all employers should take well before an incident has a chance to happen. The first is to create a written policy about harassment in the workplace that includes:

  • An explanation of what constitutes harassment
  • A description of a zero-tolerance culture
  • A promise of a prompt and thorough investigation of all claims, with action taken as appropriate (up to and including termination)
  • A clear and understandable explanation of complaint procedures and expectations.
  • Compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws. Employers are recommended to make their policies stricter than the law to send a zero tolerance message. They should also address conduct that otherwise might not rise to the level of legally-recognized harassment (acknowledge that policy violations may not equate to legal violations but are still prohibited) and simplify the issues for all involved.

Employers should also conduct mandatory harassment training, both for new hires and refreshers for tenured employees. Some states have regulations mandating and governing such training. For example, in California, companies with 50 or more employees are required by law to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training (including harassment based on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation) to all supervisors within six months of hire or promotion and every two years thereafter. This is a good rule of thumb to follow for all employees, even if your applicable state or local laws don’t require such extensive training.

We also recommend employers hold separate training for supervisors as compared to non-supervisors. Supervisors are the first line of identifying and reporting an incident so they should be trained on the proper procedure should one occur. An employer may also be held vicariously liable for any unlawful harassment by supervisors so it’s crucial to prevent harassment by supervisors from ever occurring.

Another thing that is helpful in combatting harassment is making a harassment-free company part of your culture. Instill throughout your company the belief that nobody should ever fear retaliation from speaking up. If anything, they should fear silence. This means it is everyone’s responsibility to report any incident of harassment. Make sure your employees feel not only comfortable and empowered to report harassment but that they understand that speaking up about any issue of harassment is part of their responsibility as a member of your team.

Should an incident arise, what should companies do to make sure they are prepared to respond appropriately?

It is imperative that businesses have a qualified HR professional or attorney to help not only with creating policies and procedures that encourage a culture of zero tolerance for any type of harassment but to enable managers to respond promptly and appropriately to any harassment allegations.

Don’t try to wing it yourself. Harassment is a serious issue and it’s best left to a professional to handle, once you have a complaint and it becomes necessary to do an investigation. Time is of the essence here so, again, you’ll want to hire this professional before you even need them.

What steps can companies take to create a culture of zero tolerance?

Reinforce your open-door policies. Allow your employees to have safe spaces at work where they can speak with HR or a member of management about any issue. This will allow you to respond to unwanted conduct much more efficiently, as well as reduce the stigma associated with openly sharing this information.

Next, communicate to employees their rights and responsibilities. Your written policy should be given to employees during the onboarding process after they are hired, when an employee becomes a people manager, when the materials in the policy are updated and otherwise on an annual basis. Employees should be required to acknowledge, with a signature, that they have received the policy. This acknowledgement of receipt should be kept in their personnel file.

Employees should be made aware that retaliation for reporting harassment, for participating in a harassment proceeding (such as an investigation) or for otherwise opposing harassment is illegal. They should also know that your internal policies encourage (and possibly even mandate if they are a supervisor) that they report any incidents of harassment they either witness or are affected by.

Then, set the example of a workplace that is respectful and safe for all employees. The company culture is created from the top down so it is important that your organization’s leaders demonstrate appropriate conduct. The biggest thing you can do to make sure you are creating a culture where harassment of any kind has no chance to grow is to make sure that old-fashioned respect is a huge component of how your employees interact. It’s all about respecting each other. Continue to show your team that you take any incidents or allegations of harassment seriously by training all managers on the need to bring every incident to the attention of HR and senior leadership so that a prompt and thorough investigation can be conducted.

There have already been concerns about a backlash to the recent string of high-profile firings and accusations and concerns about people making false claims. How do you create a “culture of zero tolerance” that also guards against false claims?

If you are properly training and constantly communicating with your employees on the issue, you are being very clear as to what are and are not acceptable behaviors. Any claim of harassment, even one that is determined not to violate your anti-harassment policy after a prompt and thorough investigation, can help cement your company culture of zero tolerance by showing that you do not retaliate against anyone who comes forward and that you take all allegations of harassment seriously.

Most importantly, it’s better that all incidents of potential harassment be reported to ensure that absolutely no conduct that violates your anti-harassment policy goes unreported. Even if the reported incident is found not to violate your anti-harassment policy after a thorough investigation, the behavior may still be considered unprofessional and you may still want to address it in an appropriate manner.

Let’s talk about salary equality. What does that term mean and why has it become a trend?

Various companies have taken steps, especially over the last few years, to close the gender gap when it comes to compensation. The trend will likely continue into 2018 as more states and cities enact laws intended to keep employers from asking about—or relying on—salary history as a basis for compensation negotiations, which is one way to combat historic difference in compensation by gender.

Where are we seeing states and localities embracing salary equality and taking action?

California is on the cutting edge of this trend. Previously, California enacted the California Equal Pay Act and the state’s Fair Pay Act. These regulations 1) allow employees to openly discuss compensation and 2) require equal pay for employees who perform “substantially similar work,” among other provisions. In addition, California recently passed a ban on salary history inquiry that began on January 1. This ban prohibits California employers from asking about or seeking previous salary history and from including that information in decisions regarding compensation or an offer of employment. Notably, the California law requires an employer, upon reasonable request, to provide an applicant with the pay scale for a position.

Delaware and Oregon also have compensation history inquiry restrictions in place. Massachusetts is set to follow in 2018. San Francisco and New York City have also passed similar regulations. Additionally, there are federal laws, such as the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act and the Equal Pay Act, which address unfair wage gaps.

We believe all companies should take note and expect the list to grow over time as more and more cities and states seek strategies to address pay inequality.

What role does salary play in recruiting talent and do companies need to think more three-dimensionally to compete for talent in today’s market?

Making sure you provide fair, competitive compensation is always a concern for my mid-level and smaller biotech clients. This is because when you need the same talent as Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson but your pockets aren’t so deep, you need to look for ways to offer competitive compensation while staying in budget.

Don’t just look at base pay. Thinking outside the box can help you attract and retain your talent. Short and long-term incentives can make a real difference. So can stock options, annual incentive pay (bonuses tied to projects or company results) and professional growth opportunities that they might not get at larger firms.

There’s been much handwringing about the lack of women in biotech and, in particular, the lack of women in leadership positions. What can companies do to improve their ability to recruit and advance women?

We already noted that it is a good practice for companies to address salary equality but it’s also important, if you want to attract a diverse employee base, to be strategic with your compensation package.

Think about things like benefits. Medical, dental, vision, wellness, life insurance, retirement–these are all very important to attracting qualified diverse employees across all industries. The good news is there are ways for smaller biotech companies to offer the same or better benefits as the Fortune 500 companies without breaking the bank. That’s where a professional employer organization, like TriNet, comes in, by offering access to group insurance and retirement plans like the larger companies enjoy.

Then there are the fringe benefits. Many of the companies I talk to offer additional benefits like wellness programs, pet insurance, education reimbursement and gym memberships, which can help give you a richer benefits offering without a lot of additional expense and can also appeal to a diverse group of people. Other things to consider are remote working options and onsite daycare, which can both be very helpful in attracting more women.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.