Calling All Companies: It’s Time to Get Real About Sexual Harassment
It’s not a joke. It’s really not.
In fact, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime, according to a survey conducted by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment.
The survey spanned across industries and the “continuum of unwanted experiences,” ranging from:
- Verbal sexual harassment (either online or in person)
- Unwanted touching
- Being stalked
…or even being assaulted.
We’ve all seen the headlines recently. Sometimes, it can be so easy to dismiss it as a Hollywood problem, or a media problem, or something that only happens among the inner circles of the rich and famous. But as the #MeToo movement proves, the issue of sexual harassment pervades all areas of society, across all industries.
Which means we all need to take a stand to address it.
When prevention wins – a true story of triumph
A few years ago, a colleague of mine – let’s call her Jane for the sake of anonymity – worked in a university setting and was stalked online (and later in person). The culprit? A man – part of a different branch of the same university – who fabricated a romantic relationship with her, even though the two had never met in real life.
As this man’s behavior escalated, he started sending messages to Jane, not just via personal social channels and email addresses, but also to Jane’s office. He started trying to infiltrate the network of colleagues and students she was close with, and started tracking her movements until the situation became unsafe.
The woman, in a moment of desperation, mentioned the situation to a faculty member. While just weeks before, this faculty member (let’s call him Bill) would have had no idea how to address the concerns of his female colleague, it so happened he had just received training on how to respond if he ever witnessed harassment involving a fellow employee or student.
Thanks to this training, Bill knew exactly which person in which department to contact to address this situation and help create an environment of safety for this woman he worked with. What’s more, Bill wasn’t just encouraged to speak up, he was required by company policy to do so.
The result? An investigation commenced that uncovered not only the delinquent man’s misconduct towards my colleague, but his misconduct towards a series of other young women. Because of the clear policies and procedures in place and the effective way they were communicated to staff, the safety of several young women was insured.
The man responsible for violating the sexual harassment policies was able to receive guided counseling and proper disciplinary measures, and the woman in question received the protection of an official no-contact directive.
The procedures for investigation and remediation – as well as the consequences for violating any of the rules concerning harassment – were clear.
While we’ve all experienced, in one way or another, the horrors of stories surrounding sexual harassment, I feel it’s also important to note the triumphs that occur when organizations take the right measures to protect their employees.
As a member of an organization, what can we learn from this success story?
Here are a few starting points:
- There are benefits for all parties involved in having clear policies and procedures in place for issues concerning sexual harassment
- It’s absolutely critical for companies to not only have policies, but to clearly communicate those policies to their staff
- All companies should have clear investigation, remediation and enforcement procedures in place for dealing with breaches if they do occur.
We’ll come back to this later in this post. But first, let’s explore a few other examples about how both sexual harassment and the resulting consequences play out across industries.
An Uber-giant lesson
This ride-sharing giant had 215 counts of sexual harassment as of June 2017. And what did HR do? Nothing. Not in the beginning, anyways.
After former engineer Susan Fowler made widely public allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, the company responded to public pressure by creating an anonymous hotline for staff to report sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.
Eventually, an external agency investigated the hundreds of claims made through the hotline, and more than 20 people were fired.
What caused such a breakdown in ethics at Uber, leading to a culture of harassment and discrimination for women in the workplace?
Despite the obvious missteps of the people who were terminated, this presents a classic example of why ethics and compliance cannot live in a silo within an organization. Ethics and compliance cannot just exist in HR. Sexual harassment, and other ethical issues, are not only HR topics.
While HR is, and should, be involved in dealing with these types of issues and reports, ethics and compliance should pervade an entire company’s culture.
After all, if ethics and compliance only live in a small, siloed portion of an enterprise, without support from the whole, efforts to observe and enforce them – as Uber’s case proves – could easily fail.
It doesn’t start – or stop – with Hollywood
While high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, the media and on Capitol Hill have dominated headlines recently, it’s important to remember that the bulk of sexual harassment takes place outside of the spotlight.
Sexual harassment is prevalent across a range of industries and is a massive issue that’s growing in significance to organizations of all sizes.
This chart, published by the Center for American Progress, highlights just how pervasive sexual harassment is for workers in every corner of the workforce.
It’s important to note that the people most at risk are typically low-income service-industry jobs dominated by women, and industries where men historically outnumbered their female counterparts. These two industries, particularly where women of color are involved, appear to be particularly susceptible to sexual abuse.
“Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sexual harassment charges – about 80 percent – come from women, though the data show men experience workplace sexual harassment as well,” Vox reporter Emily Stewart writes.
The key takeaway here? More than likely, harassment is happening all around you, whether you recognize it or not. And organizations need to take ownership over improving the situation the only way we really can – through building an ethical and compliant culture that supports and empowers its constituents.
After all, the costs of noncompliance are almost three times higher, on average, than the costs of compliance.
Safe reporting channels – the starting line for organizations
While, thankfully, times are changing and more people are feeling empowered to come forward, there is still so much work to do.
There is still an air of caution around whistleblowing.
There is still a fear of retaliation.
There are still unclear procedures and unclear channels through which employees can safely and easily report sexual harassment.
Organizations can no longer turn a blind eye to these challenges. Instead, they need to step up and lead the charge in addressing them. They need to provide the training, tools and, most importantly, empowerment their employees need to make them feel safe and productive in their work environments.
To do this, organizations must provide a top-down culture focused on ethical responsibility. They can’t just do that with words, they also need to:
- Enable their employees with the right policies and procedures to back these words up
- Provide processes that allow for effective reporting
- Demonstrate with actions how to handle these situations effectively
- Create an environment where staff can feel safe, even encouraged, in reporting episodes of harassment and discrimination
“These avenues should be blazingly obvious, not buried in a corporate policy that nobody reads. They should include anonymous reporting options. They should feed into a process that’s confidential and fair, including to the accused,” New York Times columnist and editor David Leonhardt states in a recent op-ed.
The right way to build these avenues? By establishing clear written policies and procedures for starters. The simple truth is, though, it’s much harder to tack these policies and procedures on after an issue has already occurred.
“But post facto truth and punishment are not enough. We also need to figure out how to prevent future abuse. We need to make inaction feel unacceptable,” David Leonhardt points out.
Though all organizations must start somewhere, it’s best to bake these processes into place as early as possible to prevent these issues. Companies should take a proactive approach towards ensuring your employees’ compliance with proper workplace (and let’s face it, life in general) conduct.
Taking a proactive approach
In this day and age, all companies should mimic the type of training that empowered Bill to know, without a doubt, that not reporting the harassment faced by Jane was completely unacceptable. All companies should encourage this type of ethical stance, while providing safety for the whistleblower.
Yet how can companies take a more proactive stance towards cutting off sexual harassment at the roots? How can they prevent sexual harassment from occuring in the first place, not just react to a previous occurrence?
The FSGO’s Seven Hallmarks have some great general tips for any company looking to improve their compliance and build truly effective programs.
If implemented correctly, these provide companies the opportunity to thoroughly and proactively protect their employees, their companies, and their companies’ reputations, from the risk that comes with sexual harassment violations.
While these guidelines don’t just apply to sexual harassment – in truth, they could cover anything from fraud to cybersecurity – they provide a roadmap to help deal with this overly-prevalent issue.
“Sexual harassment is a persistent problem in the workplace and one that affects people across industries and at every level. To combat it, it is essential to have a clear understanding of where problems are most likely to occur as well as to undertake robust measures to target discriminatory practices.”
US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Here’s a challenge to you, reader: Take this blog and put it into action. Be the change you want to see happen. Protect your fellow employees, your company, and yes, even yourself. Together, let’s create a safer, more ethical, more compliant future for all.