As revelations of sexual harassment continue to reverberate around the world from Hollywood to the House of Commons to Harvard and the epic scale and toxic impact of the problem becomes clear, organisations are coming to the uncomfortable realisation that years of sexual harassment training and ‘zero-tolerance’ policies have simply failed to work. So, is sexual harassment just an intractable problem? Or are employers just failing to grasp the nettle?
Studies and surveys show that sexual harassment remains widespread. A 2017 BBC survey found that 53% of women and 20% of men in the UK had been sexually harassed at their place of work or study, ranging from sexual banter and sexual touching to serious sexual assault. Yet in spite of the protection afforded by the law and the heightened visibility of the issue thanks to movements such as #MeToo, sexual harassment remains hugely under-reported and very few cases see the light of a tribunal or courtroom. In the US, a 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that the vast majority of those who experienced sexual harassment chose not to report it, perhaps due to the fact that of those that do, many face retaliation – as many as 75%, according to the study. Many victims of sexual harassment are also pressured into non-disclosure agreements or forced arbitration, which bar them from discussing the details of their case or seeking legal recourse.
It’s impossible to over-state the negative impact of sexual harassment in the workplace. While the cost to employers in terms of poor performance, staff turnover, and reputational damage is hard to gauge, reporting by large firms gives us a glimpse of some eye-watering figures, with 21st Century Fox paying $45 million in the first quarter of 2017 to settle sexual harassment claims.
So, what should employers be doing to prevent sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment training should certainly form the cornerstone of any organisation’s strategy for addressing sexual harassment, but the point of training isn’t always well understood and it’s only part of the solution. Sexual harassment training has typically been lumped in with broader training around bullying, harassment and other ‘inappropriate behaviour’, but the unique dynamics of sexual harassment mean that in many respects it requires a very different approach, as prominent women’s rights consultant and expert in sexual harassment prevention Dr Helen Mott explains:
“There are some ways in which sexual harassment shares similarities with other forms of bullying and harassment – in particular, the exercise of power by one person over another person – but in other ways, it’s different. The cultural barriers to reporting sexual harassment from the perspective of the victim can be very particular and they are different to the cultural barriers that are there in cases of bullying and harassment that aren’t sexual.“
Organisations are failing to tackle sexual harassment for a variety of different reasons and having a better understanding of why things have gone wrong can help us find an effective long-term solution.
Mistake no. 1: Only training people so you can avoid liability
All employers want to minimise their risk of legal liability, but only providing sexual harassment training because you want to dodge liability in the event of a tribunal claim or legal action will probably be seen by everyone for the superficial ‘tick-box’ exercise that it is and given short shrift. As Founder of ‘Men at Work’ Michael Conroy points out, dealing with the end results rather than the root causes of sexual harassment is likely to have little impact on behaviour:
“Unless workplaces consciously acknowledge the scale of the problem, and the dynamics and the causes, then probably we’re never going to move beyond the ‘sticking plaster’ situation – when really we want to stop things happening in the first place.“
As Dr Eden King, Associate Professor at Rice University explains, sexual harassment is fundamentally ‘a behaviour problem, not a knowledge problem’, which means that tackling it has to start with challenging and changing unacceptable behaviour rather than simply avoiding legal complications.
Mistake no.2: Not understanding the problem
Every organisation will have different needs when it comes to tackling sexual harassment. Start by doing research through staff surveys and exit interviews to give you an insight into the real scale of the problem in your organisation and help pinpoint particular areas of concern. Some staff will need specialist training – think about whose job it is to hear complaints of sexual harassment, for example, and who is in charge of investigating them, and then make sure they get the training they need. Consider how to empower staff at all levels to take a stand – providing bystander intervention training that shows people how to step in and speak out is a crucial part of bringing about real and lasting change through collective action and responsibility. At the end of the day, the more relevant the training is to situations that your staff are likely to face, the more likely they are to take it on board.
Mistake no.3: Trying to keep a clean slate
All organisations fear damage to their reputation from allegations of sexual harassment, but pretending you don’t have a problem isn’t the answer. Fear of reputational damage has frequently led to employers suppressing sexual harassment claims through the use of non-disclosure agreements or by the process of forced arbitration, which stipulates that disputes must be dealt with internally rather than through other methods such as the courts, leaving victims unable to appeal to take further action. This does little to reassure victims of sexual harassment that something will be done if they make a complaint, and it does even less to deter the perpetrators themselves, creating a ‘cover-up’ culture where serious problems lurk beneath a seemingly pristine surface.
Having a supposedly clean slate when it comes to sexual harassment claims should ring some alarm bells – particularly in large organisations, as Georgina Calvert-Lee, Senior Counsel at McAllister Olivarius, points out:
“Having a supposed ‘clean slate’ should reflect badly on a company, because it means that the people who would be reporting sexual harassment don’t feel comfortable or protected enough to report. So, I always feel that I have much more confidence in an employer who can say – and if it’s a large employer, you’d expect them to have a number of sexual harassment complaints – ‘Yes, we had these complaints, this is how we dealt with them.’“
Mistake no. 4: Believing that training will solve everything
Training is crucial – but it won’t make the problem miraculously disappear. Tackling sexual harassment involves putting in place robust policies, providing confidential routes for reporting, supporting victims and protecting them from victimisation and taking action to deal with harassers, as well as challenging attitudes around things like entitlement and gender inequality and beliefs around what constitutes appropriate behaviour, language and physical conduct. A workplace that rejects sexual harassment doesn’t come about by everyone going on a sexual harassment training course once a year. It involves on-going training and efforts to raise awareness, with organisations practising what they preach, supported by a concerted effort on the part of all staff to call it out and change the workplace culture.
Mistake no. 5: Letting people at the top get away with it
Tired of hearing about yet another top exec who’s managed to get away with sexually harassing their colleagues for years? A major reason why sexual harassment is still such a problem in many organisations is because senior figures haven’t been pulled up on their behaviour and continue to enjoy positions of wealth and influence, or have been allowed to leave quietly with hefty ‘golden goodbyes’. This sends the message to everyone in the organisation that certain people are valued more than others, and that women in particular – who are most often on the receiving end of harassment – are seen as expendable. Being prepared to take action against anyone who sexually harasses others, regardless of their position in or importance to the company, is a key step for any employer as it sends a powerful signal to those who sexually harass that their days are numbered.
Our 'Confronting sexual harassment' training films come in these formats
This course will give a better understanding of:
- the causes and dynamics of sexual harassment
- why it’s a problem that is significantly under-reported
- how it impacts at an individual and organisational level
- the importance of having robust policies and reporting systems
- effective intervention strategies for victims and bystanders
- how to handle complaints of sexual harassment and conduct fair investigations.
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