Americans have seen vast changes in how we handle conversations about sexual harassment. With the #MeToo movement grabbing the world by storm in the past couple of years, American workplaces have had to take critical looks at their sexual harassment policies. Organizations have been working hard to make sure that both their employees and their companies are protected from sexual harassment allegations by targeting the problem at its source. Undeniably, the first step to preventing sexual harassment at your company is to understand how it starts and what the risk factors are. Do not wait until it is too late—start the conversation in your office today. Not convinced? Let the numbers speak for themselves: 85 percent of women report that they have been sexually harassed at work.
What is Sexual Harassment?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is any unwanted attention from a coworker or boss including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of ways. Here are a few ways that sexual harassment shows up in the workplace:
- Derogatory remarks about a specific gender
- Making conditions of employment depend on the exchange of sexual favors—this can happen either in an explicit manner or an implied manner (“If only there was some way you could convince me to promote you.”)
- Physical acts of sexual assault
- Requests from a coworker or boss for sexual favors
- Verbal harassment, including jokes about gender or sexual orientation
- Unwanted physical contact or sexual advances
- Exposing oneself
- Unwanted sexually explicit photos, calls, emails or texts
The Effects of Sexual Harassment on the Workplace
For individuals who face sexual harassment in their lives, the effects can be far-reaching. Many people who suffer from sexual harassment experience emotional, physical and mental health concerns after the event. Below is a list of the types of effects to look out for. If you notice any of these in a coworker, you may want to use your voice as a bystander.
Emotional effects of sexual harassment
Common mental health effects
- Panic Attacks
- Loss of motivation and difficulty concentrating
- Substance use disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
Physical effects of sexual harassment
- Increased stress at work
- Decreased sleep or lowered sleep quality
- Headaches and fatigue
- Eating disturbances
In terms of the workplace as a whole, the effects of sexual harassment are wide-reaching. The movement towards better transparency, safety and sexual harassment awareness in workplaces is a continual work in progress. There certainly is no shortage of reports on the financial repercussions of workplace sexual harassment claims. In fact on average, a company’s cost of ignoring sexual harassment allegations is up to $6.7 million a year. Furthermore, in 2015, sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC cost organizations $46 million excluding monetary damages awarded through litigation. The conversation around monetary effects on organizations begs the question—what else can we do to prevent sexual harassment in our work environments?
Methods to Reduce Sexual Harassment Risk Factors
A great first step is to familiarize yourself and your work team with some of the basic risk factors for sexual harassment. The EEOC Task Force has laid out the most common risk factors and strategies to reduce harassment. Below are the EEOC determined risk factors for workplace sexual harassment:
- Homogenous workforce – There is a lack of real diversity in this work group. Any employees who find themselves members of a minority group can feel isolated and may be vulnerable to pressures from others. Employees in the majority, on the other hand, can feel threatened by those in their group they deem as “different” from them. Workers in the majority can, at the very least, feel uncomfortable. A great way to work on this is to increase diversity at all levels of the workforce and pay close attention to how employees interact with one another
- Workplaces where some employees do not conform to workplace norms – An example of this would be a single-sex work environment where one gender outnumbers other genders. For example, mining is a heavily male-dominated work industry. Employees in the minority may be viewed as weak or susceptible to abuse. Managers can improve this type of situation by creating a culture of respect and civility
- Culture and language differences in the workplace – New employees may arrive on the scene from different cultures or nationalities. Unintentional segregation of employees with different cultures may occur. In this type of situation, employees from a different culture may be less aware of laws and workplace norms. Employees who do not speak English may not fully understand their rights and could be subject to exploitation. The best way to fight this is to ensure that culturally diverse employees fully understand laws, policies and workplace norms by presenting them in a language they know
- Coarsened social discourse outside the workplace – This could occur during times when current events outside of the workplace are increasingly being discussed with extra heat or passion. For example, this could take place around an important election. When discourse outside of work becomes coarse, It can likely affect how employees relate to one another at work. Be proactive about when this could occur and remind your employees of the type of conduct that is and is not appropriate at work
- Young workforces – There are a significant amount of teenage or young employees in this scenario. Employees who are new to the job force may be unaware of workplace norms and policies. They may also lack the confidence to resist unwelcome advances or challenge any type of conduct that makes them uncomfortable. Young employees are also more likely to be taken advantage of by older, more experienced employees. On the flip side, young employees can be more likely to engage in harassing behaviors because they lack maturity. Managers can provide targeted outreach to younger employees and emphasize that they are open to hearing about any complaints or issues
- Workplaces with “high value” employees – These include executives and senior managers. Sometimes, management will be reluctant to handle a problem employee if they are perceived to have high value to the organization. These individuals can also see themselves as exempt from policies and norms. Apply workplace rules uniformly and make sure senior execs know that they are not exempt—they will be disciplined or discharged for poor behavior
- Workplaces with significant power disparities – Low-ranking employees are working with high-ranking employees in this case. Sometimes, supervisors can feel emboldened to exploit low-ranking employees. In turn, low-ranking employees can feel that they are not able to properly make complaints. Undocumented employees are particularly susceptible to this. Apply workplace regulations and norms uniformly, regardless of employee rank
- Workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction – This can be observed when compensation of an employee is directly linked to customer satisfaction. Fear of losing out on a sale may cause employees to tolerate more than they normally would. Be sure to use the “customer is always right” mentality appropriately if this is the case, and encourage employees to speak up if something is wrong
- Workplaces where work is monotonous or tasks are low-intensity – When employees frequently have spare time on their hands, harassing behavior can become a way to vent frustrations or boredom. Consider restructuring jobs of this nature to reduce boredom or monotony
- Isolated workplaces – Employees work alone or in very small groups and have little interaction with others. This gives harassers easy targets because there are generally no witnesses. Consider restructuring work environments to reduce this risk. Ensure that workers who do work in isolated environments understand complaint procedures
- Workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol – This occurs when there is alcohol consumption during or close to work hours. Alcohol is known to reduce social inhibitions and impair judgment. Train coworkers on how to intervene if they witness any troublesome behaviors
- Decentralized workplaces – This refers to corporate offices removed from front line employees. Managers may feel unaccountable for their actions and may act outside of workplace norms. Additionally, managers may be unsure of how to handle harassment issues without the guidance of senior executives. Ensure that compliance training reaches all levels of the organization and develop systems for employees to connect and communicate
You know that it is important for your workplace to be safe from sexual harassment issues. So be sure to take targeted and specific actions to make your work environment a safe one for yourself, your business and your employees. A great way to do this is to take KnowledgeCity’s course on “Sexual Harassment Prevention.” The course defines sexual harassment, goes over the legal aspects of sexual harassment claims, teaches you how to recognize sexual harassment behaviors in your workplace, teaches you about your obligations as an employer and helps you navigate responding to sexual harassment claims by conducting an investigation. The course covers all potential bases so that you can be in a position to keep your employees and your organization safe from sexual harassment issues. Take action to prevent sexual harassment in your organization, and start learning today.