How Big of An Issue Is Sexual Harassment On The Job?

Sexual harassment at work has been getting a lot of attention in the past year.  As a result it has been a topic of conversation not only with clients, but also at social events. I recently struck up a conversation with someone in line for coffee who turned out to be an executive with a Fortune 500 company.  The conversation turned to the news…and ultimately to the issue of sexual harassment and sexual conduct at work. 

“How big of an issue is sexual harassment, really?” was his question. 

It’s significant.

30.4% of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2017 involved claims of sex harassment and discrimination.  In reality only a fraction of the incidents of harassment and discrimination based on sex make it to the EEOC.  Thankfully many of them will be resolved at the organizational level and the employee will not have any reason to file with the EEOC.  Unfortunately, many incidents of harassment at work go unresolved or unreported and the affected employees either continue to suffer through the harassment and discrimination or exit the organization without explanation.

Even if the organization does not immediately face a lawsuit or action from the EEOC, sexual harassment on the job is expensive.  It keeps employees from being able to perform at their highest levels thereby costing the organization in productivity, innovation, customer service, etc. Sexual harassment at work results in higher absenteeism and ultimately higher turnover.  And here’s the worst part – the turnover isn’t the offender who has been allowed to get away with bad behavior. The employees who exit are high performers and high achievers who will easily get work elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the employee who is allowed to harass, discriminate, and bully … that person isn’t going anywhere on their own.

Sexual harassment, in comparison to other employee engagement issues can be particularly critical not only because of the legal implication, but to the rippling and residual employee relations issues.

All employees and managers must know what constitutes sexual harassment, and they need to  be clear about their own role and responsibility, the importance of bystander intervention, how to respond to a situation involving sexual harassment appropriately and effectively, and who to report the incident/s to. 

Compliance training is important – and sexual harassment training is required in a growing number of states and municipalities.  But “that’s what the policy says – sign here to document your participation” has never been the driving force of change. 

Training on sexual harassment and discrimination needs to be interactive, and fun (ye, fun) in order to transfer the knowledge. 

While it’s important (and legally required in some areas) that harassment prevention training include definition of terms, the real power of facilitated harassment prevention training is in the dialogue, the conversation with employees, and ability to address real life scenarios and walk participants through the nuances of building a harassment free workplace.

If you have not yet started hosting facilitated discussions with someone with expertise in harassment prevention, if you have not yet offered interactive, engaging, and fun training on harassment prevention for your workforce – we should talk – and soon.  It’s costing your organization a lot of money to do nothing. 



Harassment Prevention Training Is Important - But Not The ONLY Step In Stopping Harassment At Work

Yes, harassment prevention training is critical - as well as required in a growing number of states and municipalities - but it's important that we aren't so focused on making sure employees can define the legal terms of "quid pro quo" and "hostile work environment" that we lose sight of the fact that harassment and discrimination is highly nuanced and often engrained in workplace culture.    

Individual employees play a critical role in the prevention of workplace discrimination, harassment, and the creation-over-time- of hostile work environments. Employees throughout your organization are in a position to see and hear workplace communications that, without intervention, could develop into harassment.  Knowledgeable, proactive employers engage their supervisors and employees at every level and start the conversation early in the employment process - and reinforce the messaging with harassment prevention compliance training as an opportunity to bring the subject top-of-mind and keep the conversation going throughout the employment life cycle. 

Compliance training alone will not get the job done.  We need to focus on bystander intervention and building an overall culture of respect.  It is the employees who witness inappropriate conduct that can make the biggest difference - as long as they know how to react, who to involve, and that there will be no retaliation for speaking up on behalf of a colleague. 

Are your supervisors and employees able to identify appropriate and inappropriate workplace behaviors? Do they know what to do when they see or hear them? Are your employees actively helping you to create a positive, respectful work environment?  Ensuring that you are able to answer each of these questions in the affirmative is core to building a culture that is free of harassment and discrimination.  

Having equal employment opportunity and anti-harassment policies in place is not enough to prevent an issue - and it is not enough to prevent a complaint reaching the EEOC.  Organizations that lack a culture of respect are adding costs to their bottom line.  Disrespectful and hostile environment have higher absenteeism rates, lower employee morale, they suffer from a lack of employee engagement, lose out on high-quality employee referrals, experience higher than average turnover, and lose customers and clients as a result of their poisonous environments.  In addition to having compliance policies in place, employers must develop open lines of communication, and a workplace culture that encourages employees to step up on behalf of their co-workers.

Start with engaging harassment prevention training that includes bystander intervention.  Build a strategic plan to combat workplace harassment and discrimination from there.  


Zero Tolerance - Bad Language, or Bad Math?

Do you use the phrase "zero tolerance" in your workplace respect, workplace harassment, discrimination prevention, etc. policies?   Do you truly mean ZERO

As both an HR Consultant, and while working on the front lines as The Undercover Employee™, I have encountered a wide variety of harassment prevention and workplace respect policies that use the phrase "Zero Tolerance", and yet most organizations don't truly mean zero.

Wednesday, June 7th I will be one of a series of speakers presenting at DisruptHR Madison 2.0 (#DisruptHRMSN) - and my five-minute talk (Ignite-style) is on this exact topic.  

If you're not in Madison, WI, or even if you are and simply were unable to secure tickets, don't worry, you can still see the presentation in real time via their live stream, and see commentary via Twitter posts.  

After the event, I'll return to post more about by insights into "Zero Tolerance" policies.  

If you're looking for assistance in writing, editing, or training on sexual harassment policies, or building a culture of respect, please contact us - we welcome the opportunity to partner with you in building a more inclusive culture.