Dealing with Workplace Sexual Harassment

#MeToo.  Time’s Up. Who hasn’t seen the hashtag or become aware of the groundswell of support for those who have endured workplace sexual harassment? Over the past two years, more victims, primarily women, have come forward to talk about what happened to them, sometimes as far back as forty years ago.

Diverse group of professionals engaged in a meeting at a corporate boardroom.

The statistics say a lot about workplace sexual harassment:

  • 60% of women experience unwanted sexual attention, coercion, crude conduct or sexist comments.
  • In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) collected 165 million complaints alleging harassment.
  • 90% of victims never file a formal complaint.
  • 75% of victims don’t discuss the problem with their employers.

Many terms are associated with this problem, ranging from sex-based discrimination to sexual misconduct to sexual assault. Retaliation occurs when a victim, or survivor, attempts to stop the behavior and is punished, demoted or even fired.  Although retaliation is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it still occurs enough to make a victim think twice before reporting an incident.

Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment

With such large numbers impacting a huge proportion of the workforce, what needs to be done? If you don’t have a written sexual harassment policy, get it done now. Review it every three to five years, so it is up-to-date, accurate, and reflects changing technology, such as social media.

A clear sexual harassment policy should not tolerate any behaviors that create a toxic culture for employees. Make sure disciplinary actions are presented in an understandable way, and set concise directions for filing, reviewing, and completing the complaint process.

Make sure everyone in your workplace is familiar with the contents, especially managers and frontline supervisors. Ignorance is no excuse for dismissing complaints. The old ideas of “boys will be boys” or “it’s just locker room talk” don’t work today.

Changing organizational culture may not be an easy task. Many companies thrive on competition, aggressive behaviors and bullying others. The no-tolerance policy must apply to all levels of the organization, whether they are executives or line workers.

To enforce the policy, it is imperative that training takes place at all levels, especially senior management, who lead by example. Doing your due diligence by making employees watch a video or attend a workshop is not enough. Incorporate these ideas into your training:

  • After the standard training video and workshops, continue the conversation by presenting scenarios, especially if issues, such as workplace hugging, have arisen.
  • Use pop quizzes to refresh basic tenets.
  • Show cartoons with appropriate/inappropriate behaviors and ask employees to identify what is acceptable.
  • Use role-playing.
  • Reinforce messages at regular intervals.

Reporting  Workplace Sexual Harassment

One of the most difficult aspects of sexual harassment incidents is reporting. Many victims are reluctant to say anything, whether from fear of retaliation or further incidents. If a supervisor is seen as complicit in the behavior, or not sympathetic to the problem, a victim may not feel comfortable discussing what happened with this person. Since the #MeToo movement began in 2017, employers saw a 17 percent increase in complaints. What can you do to make the reporting process more accessible and supportive?

  • Provide a confidential process for victims to report.
  • Assign a staff member to handle the complaint.
  • Assure victim’s safety from retaliation.
  • Listen and document story with facts such as times, dates, witnesses and situations.
  • Inform the accused a complaint has been filed and no retaliation will be tolerated.
  • Offer mental health services or support to the victim.

Investigating Workplace Sexual Harassment

The last step is to investigate the claims. Make sure you understand the scope of your investigation and the question you need to answer. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will lead the investigation?
  • What evidence needs to be collected?
  • Who will be interviewed?

Sometimes, it is best to bring in an outside investigator to retain neutrality and objectivity.

The investigation process should include:

  • Prepared interview questions, especially open-ended questions
  • Evidence gathering
  • Interviewing victim, accuser, and witnesses
  • Past performance evaluations and prior complaints
  • Documentation at every step
  • Writing a report
  • Making a decision

What has changed since the advent of the #MeToo movement? There has been a  dramatic increase in complaints and an awareness of how workplace behaviors can affect productivity, culture and trust. Creating a fair, equitable and comfortable workplace for all employees should always be the paramount goal.

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