What Your Company Can Do to Prevent Sexual Harassment

In the era of #MeToo, employers of all kinds need to be ready to reckon with the sins of the past–and avert them in the future

Approximately 60% of women report that they have experienced sexual or gender harassment on the job, according to a federal study

When Time announced its Person of the Year this week, the subject was one that few could have seen coming at the start of 2017. Time recognized women who have stood up against sexual harassment, calling them “the silence breakers” and declaring that they “have unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s.”

The sudden surge in complaints about offenders, long held back, has swiftly taken down dozens of household names in media, show business and national politics. But those are just the famous cases. Since sexual harassment isn’t unique to just Manhattan or Hollywood, the new reckoning is sure to hit closer to home. All employers, from big organizations with HR departments to mom-and-pop shops, will need to be ready–not just to respond to complaints, but to foster a new order in the workplace.

One prominent Brooklyn employer has had a sudden encounter with the new reality. Vice Media, which employs hundreds of workers in Williamsburg and Dumbo, fired three employees late last month, including the head of its documentary films unit, for misconduct that “ranged from verbal and sexual harassment to other behavior that is inconsistent with our policies, our values, and the way in which we believe colleagues should work together,” said the company’s new head of global HR, Susan Tohyama, in a memo.

The firings took place two weeks after a story in The Daily Beast described a “toxic” environment inside the company, marked by “harassing behavior and company indifference.” Vice, famous for holding itself out as a “non-traditional workplace,” has now scrambled to adopt new standards and safeguards, including the hiring of outside investigators to probe complaints.

The new seriousness is warranted. Sexual harassment has painful repercussions. Those who are victimized often suffer serious psychological harm. And organizations that tolerate harassment put themselves at risk for lowered productivity, negative publicity and costly lawsuits. But it is preventable. Here’s what you need to know, and what you can do to protect your colleagues and your company’s culture.

How Pervasive Is It?

Very. Approximately 60% of women report that they have experienced sexual or gender harassment on the job, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2016 report on harassment in the workplace. Yet there is a perception gap when it comes to recognizing harassment that other colleagues may be enduring. According to a recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, just 9% of Americans surveyed believe that sexual harassment is a problem in their own workplace, but 80% say it is a problem in other workplaces.

The survey also found a sharp partisan divide in reactions to the headlines about harassment, NBC News reported: “The survey found, for instance, that Democratic men were more than twice as likely as Republican men to say they had reflected on their own behavior, or their attitudes toward women, since the wave of sexually charged scandals began.”

Why Victims Stay Mum

While the groundswell of allegations may embolden more victims to break their science, until now most cases have gone unreported. According to the EEOC, just one quarter of victims file a formal complaint with their company and very few take their complaints to a lawyer or to the EEOC. One study found that among women who had experienced “unwanted physical touching,” just 8% had formally reported it. Of those experiencing “sexually coercive behavior,” only 30% had made a formal complaint. Why? Employees are concerned that they won’t be believed, that they will be blamed for leading men on, or that they will be retaliated against.

Retribution is cowardly but common. Research on public-sector employees by Lilia Cortina, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, found that two-thirds of workers who spoke out against workplace harassment faced some form of subsequent retaliation, either professional or social. A recent analysis of EEOC data by the Center for American Progress found that nearly 75% of sexual harassment charges include an allegation of retaliation.

Consider what happened to Gretchen Carlson, one of the first in the new wave of silence-breakers. Carlson sued Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes last year for sexual harassment and faced an instant backlash (including from some of her own colleagues). Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in October, Carlson explained that a woman who dares to come forward is often labeled a “troublemaker” or a “bitch.” Carlson said: “You won’t be believed. And, some people have even suggested that you do it for money or fame.”

“We see adverse outcomes not only in women who are sexually harassed, but also in co-workers who witness that harassment,” testified an expert

What Causes It?

In short, organizations that tolerate offensive behavior create breeding grounds for abuse. Certain kinds of workplaces have more than their share: companies that are mostly male or have large numbers of low-wage jobs predominantly held by women. And certain types of men are more likely to harass than others: those who have old-fashioned notions about the proper roles for women, and those who are coddled because their companies consider them irreplaceable superstars. 

Though there is little research on what motivates harassers, what is known is that they’re driven less by lust than by an assertion of their power. If they can get away with groping, how grand they must be. Lastly, many men may not understand what constitutes harassment, or how it causes harm. A recent online poll found that two out of three men surveyed didn’t think that repeated, unwanted invitations to drinks, dinner or dates amounts to sexual harassment. Yet there are gray areas that might stump most workers: take the online quiz developed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to test your awareness.

Why It’s Bad for Victims–and Business Too

Those who suffer harassment often experience emotional trauma that can continue for years. Less recognized is how harassment can prompt victims to cut short or change direction in otherwise promising careers. One victim interviewed by the New York Times had painfully apt name for harassers: “the dream crushers.”

A culture of harassment can be ruinous for an organization as well. In the notorious case of Uber, one former employee’s 3,000-word blog post about Uber’s corrosive work environment brought the seemingly invincible company to its knees. An organization’s many stakeholders–workers, customers, shareholders–no longer have much tolerance for such abuse. While courts have been surprisingly likely to dismiss sexual-harassment lawsuits, employers should probably prepare to deal with a lot more cases.

There is another, more subtly negative workplace effect. “We see adverse outcomes not only in women who are sexually harassed, but also in co-workers who witness that harassment,” Dr. Cortina explained in testimony to the EEOC in 2015. This phenomenon may be akin to the bystander guilt that comes over people who witness bullying. They feel disrespected themselves, since the perpetrators had no fear of doing it in front of them.

What You Can Do

Create a civil workplace: By the far the most important step a company can take to stave off harassment is to foster a workplace in which employees are encouraged to be respectful to one another. “Incivility can become an antecedent to workplace harassment,” according to the EEOC’s report. “It creates a climate of general derision and disrespect in which harassing behaviors are tolerated.” Cultures in which women are viewed as sex objects instead of valued employees send an implicit message that it’s OK to treat women as such. Studies have shown that strict management norms and a climate that does not tolerate offensive behavior can inhibit harassment, even by those with a propensity toward such conduct,” Cortina explained in her testimony.

Model good behavior: Civility begins at the top. If you’re serious about creating a safe environment, show it. Publish guidelines about what types of behaviors will not be tolerated and make sure all managers model respectful conduct. The top brass must refrain from bullying or intimidation.

This goes for small businesses too. “It’s hard being an entrepreneur and usually your focus is on the bottom line,” notes Susan Stehlik, clinical associate professor of management communication at NYU’s Stern School of Business. However, “your bottom line will wither if you ignore what is happening with employees and how they work together. Relationships are bound to develop in close environments; don’t prohibit them. Find guidelines that work to clearly identify what a conflict of interest is for your business,” she suggests.

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Put policies in writing: Guidelines should be very specific and include emotion-laden language to drive the point home, writes Debbie Dougherty in the Harvard Business Review. Dougherty, who is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, has found that sexual harassment is often misunderstood and that guidelines are often misinterpreted. She suggests that employees need to read language that is very explicit, such as “Sexual harassment is a form of predatory sexual behavior in which a person targets other employees.” She explains that “using terms such as ‘predatory’ instead of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘target’ instead of ‘victim’ can shape how organizational members interpret the policy.” The consequences should be clearly explained. According to an online poll, nearly one in five men don’t think sexual harassment is an offense for which they may be fired.

Encourage feedback: Be open to employee complaints and suggestions. If you’re not sure what’s going on among your ranks, hold an informal roundtable. If your workplace is large, send out an anonymous survey.

Provide more than one channel for complaints:  Here’s why. “If your policy states to go to the president of the company, and that individual is the harasser, your policy is completely meaningless,” says an article by two lawyers on the SHRM website. In fact, when Vice instituted its new policy, the HR chief named three channels: an employee’s direct manager, the HR team or general counsel, and a hotline for anonymous tips.

Train employees to speak up in the moment: “Many employees are intimidated by power and will be unwilling to give feedback to someone who has offended them,” says Stehlik. However, “if you can stop these behaviors at the first step, you will be much better off.”

Empower bystanders too: Encourage co-workers to intervene when they see sexually harassing behavior and to report the behavior to management. But you need to go beyond just telling them to do that, since intervening can be awkward at best and scary at worst. The EEOC encourages bystander training, explaining that it creates a sense of collective responsibility in the workplace.

Put teeth in the enforcement: Reports of harassment are often met with organizational indifference or hostility. If sanctions are not imposed on those who exhibit bad behavior, employees learn that harassment is tolerated. When sanctions are imposed, the opposite message is transmitted.

Reign in your superstars: Power can make an individual feel uninhibited and, well, powerful. Superstars may come to believe that the regular rules don’t apply to them. And they may not even believe the “rules” are important. What’s more, the behavior of these individuals may not always take place in plain view of others or those with the authority to stop it.  

Move swiftly but surely: In the midst of the #MeToo movement, concerns have been raised about a rush to judgment of the accused, or more specifically a “lack of due process.” Employers needn’t fire an accused employee straight away–a suspension could be a wise move till the facts are clear–but employers do need to investigate the claim thoroughly. Employers may be held liable unless they can prove that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the acts, or promptly corrected the conduct once it became evident.

With reporting by Arden Phillips

Lesley Alderman, LMSW, is a psychotherapist and journalist. You can read more of her articles on wellness here.

  • heidi boghosian

    Excellent points. Employers should also encourage and support staff to communicate directly and firmly when certain behavior is unwelcome. If employers, bystanders, and management all take a more pro-active stance it helps shift organizational culture.