Every day, we learn of more victims of sexual harassment. Many people have been surprised by this escalation. After dealing with this issue professionally for more than 30 years, I’m not.
I began my career as an attorney representing harassment victims. Later I switched to the management side, defending these claims. Currently, I deal with workplace harassment as a consultant, executive coach, and investigator. Here’s my take:
No. 1: Our current approach to eliminating sexual harassment doesn’t work
Most sexual harassment policies and training programs in the workplace are at best ineffective. Although they’ve been commonplace for 30 years, as found by the EEOC’s Select Task Force on Workplace Harassment, there’s no evidence they’ve proved effective. You’re as likely to be harassed today as you were 30 years ago.
Why? The overwhelming majority of anti-harassment policies and training programs are legalistic exercises designed to check a compliance/claim prevention box. They may deter reporting instead of encouraging it. They completely ignore these workplace realities:
- Most victims of sexual harassment don’t complain to management or HR. They don’t go to agencies and they don’t hire attorneys. The reasons for this include: a fear of retaliation and embarrassment; a strong desire to avoid conflict; a desire to be one of the group and be accepted; self-doubt (“Did this really happen?” “Should I have reacted differently?”); and doubts about whether management will understand or care.
- Although there are predators who combine power with sex, most people who engage in offensive sexual behavior don’t think they’re harassing anyone; typically they think the opposite. They make assumptions about what’s welcome and get encouragement from the reluctance of victims to take action. They assume a lack of complaint means consent.
- Workplaces that tolerate sexual behavior leave themselves vulnerable to people who engage in such behavior and later turn it against the employer. I’ve defended harassment claims from plaintiffs who brought cakes shaped like male genitals to company birthday celebrations and entertained co-workers with a reenactment of the Katz’s Delicatessen scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Typically these “surprise plaintiffs” emerge when they’ve been fired or fear being fired and adopt the “best defense is a good offense” approach.
No. 2: Our new standard must be a respectful culture
If you’re serious about eliminating harassment, replace a legalistic scare-you-into-compliance approach with one that focuses on core values. The goal is not to avoid a harassment lawsuit. It’s to create a work environment where people are treated with dignity, professionalism, and respect at all times.
When employers focus on “harassment,” they focus on a problematic legal standard. The law permits workplace sexual behavior, even if offensive, so long as it doesn’t pass the “pervasive or severe” test. This creates plenty of room for argument, which is why most alleged harassers think of themselves as victims and point the finger back at the complainant. The legal standard increases victims’ reluctance to take action.
Set the behavioral standard at dignity, respect, and professionalism, not the law. This means drawing the line at sexual behavior, not sexual harassment. Make alleged consent, welcomeness, or absence of complaint irrelevant. If the behavior is in any way sexual, it violates the behavioral standard and doesn’t belong.
Don’t burden an employee with having to assert she or he is a victim of “harassment.” Rather, enlist all employees to help maintain an environment where every employee feels safe, secure, and respected at all times.
In my experience, when employers make a respect-based standard a non-negotiable core policy and value, they: (a) keep surprise harassers off the behavioral slippery slope; (b) protect the company against surprise plaintiffs; and, best of all, (c) protect surprise victims, the ones who suffer without reporting.
No 3: We need to empower victims and bystanders
Few anti-harassment policies and training programs address the actions victims can take directly or how bystanders can help. This is a mistake. Often the problem starts small and “progresses” to a truly hostile environment.
If you’re dealing with a surprise harasser (making erroneous assumptions about what is “welcome”), this simple, direct statement can work: “When you _________ [describe the behavior], it makes me feel uncomfortable. Please stop.” This statement eliminates ambiguity or erroneous assumptions, without labeling the behavior or threatening consequences. If the offender genuinely didn’t mean to offend, he (and sometimes she) has an easy way to self-correct.
When taught to employees, self-help should never be required. In certain situations, it’s not even appropriate. It’s simply an option that can be taught, as you also reinforce the point that under no circumstances should offensive behavior be allowed to continue.
Even when victims don’t report, co-workers often have knowledge of the offensive behavior. Without necessarily intending to do so, bystanders who do or say nothing make the environment worse for the victim. Instead, they should be taught intervention options. Depending on circumstances, bystanders can: (a) confront the offender directly; (b) encourage the victim to confront the offender or report the problem; or (c) report the problem themselves.
Workplace sexual harassment is eradicable
It starts at the top. Leaders must make a commitment to setting the bar at a respect-based environment, not a harassment-free environment. Next, employers must align policies, training, and enforcement with this commitment.
Instead of plucking weeds, create soil conditions in which workplace sexual harassment cannot grow.