From physical safety to psychological and emotional safety, it’s time to implement new practices and changed attitudes to the industry, writes safety expert Tracey Hawkins.

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During NAR’s Realtor Safety Month, headlines have revealed details about sexual harassment, toxic work environments and retaliation. Advocates and members are rising up and taking a stand against this behavior, emphasizing the importance of immediate and direct leadership action. Strong leadership is essential now.

A safety and security culture is established from the top down. The industry will follow suit if management and brokerage owners prioritize, create and implement a strong safety and security culture.

There is a safety culture problem in the real estate industry, encompassing the prevalence of harassment, rape and other harmful behaviors. It’s time to explore the importance of psychological safety and provide recommendations for how leaders in the industry can create a safer and more supportive environment for all parties involved.

Nina Wiseman’s story

Leadership isn’t the only perceived problem in this industry — Nina Wiseman, a Realtor with Listing Leaders in Valparaiso, Indiana, was raped during a showing. She initially planned to stay silent due to embarrassment and shame. Another agent convinced her to contact law enforcement and to come forward.

Nina Wiseman

Although she received support from many agents, she faced backlash from some agents. She shares that she was shunned and ostracized by her fellow agents. 

“I was told I did it for the attention and was to blame for my rape. I was removed from my association’s board of directors (but was later re-elected) and the government affairs committee that I co-chaired. I was told that I wasn’t ready to come back yet. I felt victimized all over again,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman has been sharing her story since she appeared on the “Drive With NAR: The Safety Series,” the National Association of Realtor podcast. It’s the only real estate safety podcast in the U.S. I was selected as host by the National Association of Realtors this spring.

Other stories in the news this year include lawsuits against Keller Williams, Redfin, and eXp, all of which have been sued by agents who allege being assaulted by fellow agents:

  1. In October 2022, a Bay-area Redfin agent stated that a photographer touched her inappropriately. When she reported it, she was told that since the photo shoot was completed, she wouldn’t have to deal with the photographer again. 
  2. Three eXp agents and one of their spouses are suing the company over allegations that two senior agents drugged, assaulted and videotaped them during company events.
  3. A Keller Williams franchisee / CEO recently dropped and amended a lawsuit where she alleged years of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and abuse by the franchisor. The complaint alleged a culture that encouraged female employees to perform “sexual acts and favors for male counterparts and top clients.”

The point that these stories reached lawsuit status speaks volumes about the culture and lack of safety within the real estate companies.

If you see something, say something

Psychological safety principles mean that members, agents, vendors, participants, employees, etc., should be able to voice concerns, fears and problems, speak out about any topic, or share new ideas without fear of retaliation, retribution or punishment.

Organizations that promote psychological safety can significantly reduce, if not eradicate, illicit behaviors that hinder workplace productivity, suppress innovation and foster negativity, including harassment, bullying and targeting. Everyone in the real estate industry, including administrative staff, employees, members, vendors, consumers and so on, would benefit from these practices. 

The real estate companies and organizations that rise up to the challenge of implementing a psychologically safe environment will see the results among agents, staff, vendors and even consumers.

Once all parties realize they are free to speak up if they have been harassed, assaulted, bullied, or if they’ve observed unsafe or unacceptable behavior, they will have tremendous respect for the leadership. Organizations will notice greater retention as well as the ability to recruit agents seeking a safe and secure place to work. 

The benefits of a psychologically safe environment include heightened morale, diminished harassment incidents, enhanced team unity and encouraged innovation.

Leadership benefits by promoting an open-door strategy, soliciting feedback and championing mutual respect.

Organizations should share their strong mission

As a collective, leadership in the real estate industry must pledge to prioritize the welfare and dignity of everyone. That can be accomplished through open dialogue, empathy and personal responsibility. All should aim for an inclusive environment where everyone feels cherished, safe and recognized.

Real estate professionalism must encompass workplace ethics and harassment prevention. Organizations should explicitly state intolerable behaviors (as outlined in the living document created by Awesome Females) such as:

  • Harassment (verbal, sexual, online or in-person)
  • Bullying
  • Targeting
  • Unwanted physical advances
  • Disparaging comments
  • Unsolicited overtures and more.

Following the roles of psychological safety practices, victims or witnesses of such behaviors should be able to confidently report to the leadership, expecting their concerns to be acknowledged and addressed without suppression, retribution, retaliation, or punishment. 

Leadership’s role

Associations, boards, real estate brokerage owners and team leaders must take actionable, solid steps to create a strong safety and security culture for their agents. In an industry that the U.S. Department of Labor classifies as a hazardous occupation, all must work to create a strong safety culture.

12-step leadership action plan

Brokers, managers, owners and association/board leadership, here is a roadmap to implement action steps to creating a safe and secure real estate industry:

  1. Invoke an immediate response: Act swiftly to shield potential victims from the perpetrator, fellow agents and industry leaders. 
  2. You should employ assertive communication: Enable and empower agents/survivors/victims to assert, “Your behavior is unacceptable.”
  3. Retain all documentation and encourage reporting: Emphasize the necessity for meticulous record-keeping. Clearly outline the process to report harmful, dangerous or inappropriate behavior.
  4. Engage legal, expert and organizational support: Build a team of experts and supporters. Create and use appropriate channels for implementing safety and security protocols.
  5. Implement personal safety practices: Participate in expert-led safety training, seek allies and attend events with trusted peers.
  6. Establish a consistent reporting procedure: Establish a transparent system for harassment reporting.
  7. Build a robust safety culture: Engage unanimous leadership support.
  8. Regularly schedule conversations: Hold discussions, meetings and expert-led training on safety and security practices.
  9. Implement a safety and security plan: Create an active safety committee.
  10. Set up efficient reporting mechanisms: Choose an anonymous, online procedure or assign the task to a member of the safety committee.
  11. Continue expert-led safety and security training sessions: Make it regular and strongly encourage it and add it to the onboarding programs.
  12. Invest in specialized training: Ensure actionable workplace safety practices.

This is the time for the real estate industry to come together and take action to create a change to ensure safety for all parties. It is a time for forward-looking measures and expert-led anti-harassment and safety and security culture training accompanied by a clear plan to implement a strong safety and security culture, including principles of psychological safety.

Tracey Hawkins is a former real estate agent, international real estate safety and security expert, instructor, and keynote speaker. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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