Reducing Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Proactive Approach

Beth Thierer By Beth Thierer

Each day seems to bring a new report of sexual harassment complaints against celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile individuals. In recognition of what the publication has termed a “revolution of refusal,” Time recently named “The Silence Breakers” as the 2017 Person of the Year – highlighting the growing number of women and men who have stepped forward to disclose sexual harassment incidents. While pundits and comedians may utilize these allegations and firings as a springboard for forward-worthy monologues and YouTube clips, the challenge for companies is shockingly real, with Human Resources and Managers on the front lines of organizational response.

Sexual harassment affects both the employer and the employee. Those who are victims of harassment often experience psychological reactions such as depression and anxiety as well as career-related impacts such as decreased job satisfaction, unfavorable performance reviews and loss of job. Workplace sexual harassment also has an organizational impact, including reduced company loyalty, increased absenteeism, and reduced productivity. Those organizations at the center of a sexual harassment allegation are also at great risk for a damaged public image that can lead to leadership change or a loss of revenue. In this era of 24-hour news coverage and instant worldwide communication, the stakes have never been higher.

Moving Out of the Shadows

“Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

-2016 Study on Workplace Harassment, EEOC

In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency responsible for processing complaints, published a comprehensive study on workplace harassment. One of the key findings supported a widely-held belief, stating,“Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

Recent events suggest that the tide may be turning. Emboldened by celebrity stories of workplace harassment and viral trends such as the #MeToo movement, millions of women and men have come forward with their own stories, creating a growing wave of issues for HR professionals and company executives to handle.

At the same time, most companies are not prepared to handle harassment claims and could be caught off guard when allegations are made. For example, a recent survey of private and public corporate board members conducted by theBoardlist and Qualtrics reported that “the vast majority of boards (77%) had not discussed accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior and/or sexism in the workplace. Nearly all (88%) had not implemented a plan of action as a result of recent revelations in the media or re-evaluated the company’s risks regarding sexual harassment or sexist behavior at the workplace (83%).”

Taking Proactive Steps

“Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment. The importance of leadership cannot be overstated – effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”

-2016 Study on Workplace Harassment, EEOC

One lesson that can be learned from the recent highly public cases is that wishing away the problem or hoping that it doesn’t come to light is not a viable strategy to reduce sexual harassment. Individuals can now reach an instant worldwide audience at the push of a digital button and employers can no longer assume that a problem can be quietly resolved or the issue will never be raised. Organizations who don’t take proactive steps to address workplace sexual harassment could be placing both employees and themselves at risk.

While no set of guidelines or training has the power to be a cure-all for the problem of inappropriate workplace behavior, management can take proactive steps to address potential vulnerabilities, such as:

  • Implement hiring practices that result in a more diverse workforce. An employee group that includes men and women from a wide cultural, ethnic and social background can help to disrupt traditional power structures in a positive way.
  • Encourage your organization to utilize services such as theBoardlist to add diverse leaders to boards of directors and steering committees.
  • Review and update policies related to sexual harassment, along with increased internal communication about the standards, process for reporting abuses, and consequences for violating the policy.
  • Hold proactive, mandatory, regularly-scheduled anti-harassment training sessions, rather than post-event, reactive training after a claim is made. Refer to your state’s guidelines regarding frequency, content requirements and length of recommended training.
  • Build and support an overall culture of well-being that results in a workforce that feels supported, nurtured and empowered to address issues.
  • Work with a dedicated Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider such as BHS to offer employees a 24/7 helpline for confidential, in-the-moment support. Employees who fear retaliation may feel more comfortable talking to an outside resource when reporting a claim. A strong EAP can also help employees deal with the emotional aspects of harassment.
  • Ask your provider to analyze EAP utilization data to identify potential issues while still maintaining employee confidentiality.
  • Don’t wait for a formal complaint to be made before addressing an issue you have witnessed. A proactive response and showing support for the target of sexual harassment can be a powerful deterrent.
  • An EAP that functions as a true workplace partner can also assist management in being proactive in dealing with harassment situations. For example, your EAP can help managers to prepare for a difficult conversation and begin the process of addressing a complaint.

Finally, management should support creating and fostering a healthy, thriving workforce that discourages all forms of harassment. The 2016 EEOC report sums up the issue and reinforces the importance of management’s role by stating, “Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment. The importance of leadership cannot be overstated – effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”

Do you need help garnering management support or building a program to address potential risks associated with workplace sexual harassment? BHS has resources and trained professionals that can help.  Get in touch.

Beth Thierer

By Beth Thierer, LCSW-C, SHRM-CP,Senior Program Manager, BHS

Beth is licensed by the State of Maryland as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She is also a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Certified Professional, certified in Critical Incident Stress Management and specialty trained in EAP Critical Incident Response – Resiliency Approach. Additionally, she is a member of the national Employee Assistance Professionals Association and the Chesapeake Chapter.