Recent headlines splashed across the front page underscore the embarrassing place companies can be put when sexual harassment charges are brought against them or someone in their employ. While the issue of sexual harassment is not new and has been against the law in the U.S. for decades, it seems to be alive and well in the workplace.
PR and communications practitioners have an opportunity to step up on this issue by identifying contemporary ways to support their organization’s policies on sexual harassment and advance organizational understanding and commitment. While this is not the typical communications issue we grapple with every day, when poorly communicated we could find our company on the front page and then scrambling to do something to address it.
A recent study published in the Huffington Post revealed that one in three women between the ages of 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work. Other studies suggest anywhere between 40-70% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. And it is not just a women’s issue. Psychology Today indicated in a recent survey that over 30% of working men reported at least one form of sexual harassment in the previous year. In 2015, men represented 17.1% of all sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
And, it is a global issue. With many countries around the world issuing their own laws and guidelines, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women focused its 2013 meeting around ending violence against women and recognized that sexual harassment is a form of violence against women.
Legal Requirements in the U.S.
In the United States, organizations that come under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are subject to the regulations on sexual harassment.
According to the EEOC, the definition of sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
- “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
- Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same-sex.
- Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.” (https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm)
So, why does sexual harassment continue to be a problem when it has been against the law for years? In the article “Why Sexual Harassment Is Still An Issue and Why So Many Get Away With It,” ( Fast Company, Moran, 2014) Moran suggests that society does not deem it to be a serious problem. And those that do raise the issue face a long and drawn out process that can seem daunting and potentially does not end in their favor. The article also suggests that companies may take action based on whether it is “a bigger financial loss to lose a key person or to settle a few sexual harassment claims.”
Five Key Communication Elements
But there might be more that can be done. In addition to the typical communications that companies issue (policy, reporting system, management letter reinforcing their position), there are important considerations they should take on. Here are some to consider:
- Revise Materials (really!), Make them Contemporary, Relevant and Real! While companies have developed and communicated their policies and reporting procedures regarding sexual harassment for years…just how effective are those communications? Are they the same stale communications that have been used for years ? Companies would be well served to reconsider the effectiveness of their sexual harassment communications and employee training programs. They should ensure they are not just ‘checking the box’ to a perfunctory task. Employees will know you have. Organizations are clamoring for their employees’ attention in the cacophony of communications overload. Make your communications ones they will want to read and videos they will be interested in watching. These efforts should include contemporary approaches and channels and ensure communications address diverse employee populations. The communications should reinforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment and resonate across cultures, communities and generations. Do your communications do that or have they been purchased off the shelf (and show it) and not been refreshed for years?
- Management reinforcement (and not just the CEO annual letter) Does management reinforce these messages actively? Sexual harassment is one of those subjects that may be less comfortable for leaders to talk about. It is for these same reasons they should be willing to open up and own talking about it. This is not just a human resources or communications issue. This is a company issue. Make them own it the same way they own business results. And if leaders are naïve enough to think it ‘doesn’t happen here’ just look at the statistics or open up the newspaper and they might just get that wake up call.
- Give management the tools to talk about it: So, now they are open to talk about it, what should they say and how should they say it? Give them the tools so they can do it effectively, address the issues and answer the questions. This will require more than just some talking points and the proverbial FAQs. Employees will be listening carefully and tone and sincerity will be vital in their credibility. Help them. Craft messages that are simple, direct and acknowledge the company position without using jargon or verbiage that may seem disingenuous and ‘cookie cutter’ like. Coach leaders through their delivery and question and answer sessions.
- Take the pulse of your employees. While companies often survey employees through engagement surveys and similar instruments, other qualitative measures should be considered. These could include sampling employee populations through focus interviews and groups to identify if there are issues of wrongdoing of any nature, including sexual harassment. Utilizing a third-party who is experienced in surfacing these employee issues may be an investment that could pay big dividends in the end. It will also inform you if employees believe the company really is committed to a harassment free workplace or if they are just ‘paying lip service’ to these stated values.
- Monitor Social Media Channels on an ongoing basis. Not just to see if there are inappropriate things being said online but also to gauge whether there are signs of underlying issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. Often times, social media channels can be a source for employees to vent about things they might not raise in the workplace.
While these efforts will not insulate a company from sexual harassment, they will make a strong statement to your employees, customers, suppliers, communities and stakeholders what kind of company you are and the type of behavior that is expected.
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in the Graduate Programs at NYU in PR and Corporate Communication and Integrated Marketing. She developed the first corporate communication program on sexual harassment in the workplace “Sexual Harassment…it’s not part of the job!” and has published and lectured on this topic. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jfstrayer.