Rooting Out Sexual Harassment

Compliance training and policies alone aren’t enough to curb this insidious misuse of power in the workplace.

Rooting Out Sexual Harassment

Too many organizations try to curtail sexual harassment by just offering compliance training and establishing policies aimed at prohibiting such abusive use of power. But in reality, those steps often enough still fall short, as evidenced by the slew of celebrities and high-level executives outed since last fall by the #MeToo movement.

A better solution requires organizations to perform a considerably deeper dive to get to the core of the problem: corporate cultures that subtly foster conditions for harassment, no matter how comprehensive the compliance training and policies, says Connie Costigan, the vice president of communications for Saba, a global talent-development and management consultant.

“Sexual harassment isn’t a compliance issue — it’s a cultural issue,” Costigan explains. “Certainly it’s important to have an approach that includes compliance, but that’s only a check box to eliminate risk. To really be proactive, organizations must address the underlying issues of power and culture.

“Training doesn’t always help the people who take this sort of power approach because they think the rules don’t apply to them,” she continues. “As such, training only scratches the surface.”

The move toward compliance-based workplaces began in 1998, when two Supreme Court decisions determined that companies could avoid liability in sexual harassment cases if they could prove they provide anti-harassment training. But as it turns out, compliance training raises a fairly low bar for curbing harassment. Companies that rely only on this letter-of-the-law approach essentially are in essence waiting for a harassment problem to get bad enough that some brave employee will actually report it, she observes.

“I don’t think that it’s an ill-intentioned approach on the part of organizations,” she says. “But there’s a whole lot of underreporting (of harassment) going on. It’s human nature to fear retaliation or not want to rock the boat or get someone into trouble. So the burden for identifying harassment typically depends on a victim coming forward.”

Studies back up Costigan’s comments. In 2016, for example, a report from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated that 25 to 85 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment. While that’s an admittedly large range, even the low-end figure comes out to an unacceptable one in every four employees. Moreover, the report also noted that 75 percent of harassment incidents aren’t reported and 75 percent of harassment victims experienced retaliation after they voiced complaints.

Identifying trouble spots

So where do organizations start in terms of evaluating their culture? If companies don’t already do so, Costigan suggests they collect data to find potential hot spots. Telltale indicators could include high rates of employee turnover (especially among females), poor rates of female promotions and, of course, high rates of sexual harassment complaints.

But beyond that, so-called pulse surveys — which pose simple, high-level, yet nonthreatening questions that effectively gauge employees’ cultural perspectives — also serve as effective tools. Typical pulse-survey questions could ask employees if they feel comfortable in their working relationships with others; do they feel respected; do they feel they can be themselves at work; do they feel comfortable raising concerns to their managers; and so forth.

“Then you can drill down further and ask if they’ve ever observed or experienced behavior that made them uncomfortable,” Costigan says. “You need to look for patterns in the data, perhaps in a certain department or business unit. All this data can give you a sense of where hot spots exist.”

It’s also beneficial to provide training for unconscious bias, in which people make quick judgments and assessments of people and situations; those judgments are strongly influenced by people’s background, cultural environments and personal experiences. Unconscious-bias training helps employees understand their diversity and gender blind spots.

For example, some people unconsciously dismiss proposals made and opinions expressed by females while automatically endorsing those voiced by white males. In addition, some employees might make gender-related comments about gender that, for whatever reason, they don’t realize are biased and can easily be misinterpreted as harassment, she explains.

“You want to create a culture where people can say, ‘That’s not cool — that doesn’t sound right to me,’ and it’s well-received,” she points out. “You have to make it OK for people to object and stand up when they see or hear something they feel is inappropriate or makes them uncomfortable.”

Examine the power structure

Unconscious bias against females often is subtly reinforced because in most organizations, males hold the most power, which makes certain cultural problems self-perpetuating. That brings up another important factor in curbing sexual harassment: changing the power dynamics within companies.

“You need to look at where the power is concentrated,” Costigan notes. “Just look at your org chart, and then look at potential future leaders. If you have a bunch of people already in power who are assessing future leaders and they’re overwhelmingly male, you need to take a look at your talent pool and make it more balanced. Otherwise you’re just continuing to build a predominantly male power structure.

“Diversity in thought and leadership makeup is only going to enrich your organization,” she continues. “No one should want cookie-cutter clones who perpetually reinforce everything that’s ever happened in your business. If want to build an organization that can change and evolve, a balance of diversity can only help. And when you even out the distribution of power, you’re far more likely to change the frequency of sexual harassment.”

Companies also can use performance-management protocols to send a strong message about behaviors that won’t be tolerated. In essence, the culture of any organization is shaped largely by the worst behavior management is willing to tolerate, she says.

“Standards for managers’ behavior need to be included in job reviews and assessments,” Costigan emphasizes. “If you want to make sure the right behaviors are being assessed, recognized, and rewarded, you must determine what skill sets and competencies anyone in power needs in order to rise through the ranks.”

Set the bar high

In other words, only employees that demonstrate strength in areas such as diversity and inclusion, integrity, empowering employees and equitable treatment should be considered for leadership positions. “Otherwise you send the message that any jerk who’s ill-behaved and makes lewd comments still is going to move up in the organizational ladder,” she says. “It’s up to you to set the standards for your company.”

In short, organizations need to take proactive steps to curb sexual harassment through major paradigm shifts in their cultures, not put the onus on harassed employees to come forward with accusations. “There has never been a time like there is today where we need to identify and root out this kind of cultural behavior,” Costigan concludes. “It puts organizations at risk and doesn’t allow them to fully tap the potential of their employees because it creates an environment where people don’t feel safe, respected or engaged. And that’s just not a place where people want to work.”


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