Sexual Harassment: A Workplace Pandemic (Part Two)

This is the second article in a series of two articles.  The first article published on December 5th explored background on the issue of sexual harassment, the extent of the problem and the role of silence. You can find it here.

Victim Response on Sexual Harassment
As we consider the severity of the issue of sexual harassment, it is vital we examine the response of victims and the resulting outcomes. According to Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University found, “a really large percentage of women quit their jobs.” In fact, she found for those who experienced severe sexual harassment, it was 80 percent (2017).

What about those who stayed?  Her research provides some disturbing findings,” For those who stayed, challenging toxic workplace cultures also had costs. And, for those who do report it, their outcomes are bleak. Eighty percent found that nothing changed and 16 percent reported that things got worse (Williams, Z., 2017). Even for women who were not harassed directly, standing up against harmful work environments resulted in ostracism and career stagnation. By ignoring women’s concerns and pushing them out, organizational cultures that give rise to harassment remain unchallenged (2017).

Not Only Women Are Victims
This is not an issue that only affects women. In fact, nearly 17 percent of the charges filed with the EEOC in 2016 were from men. In a recent study highlighted in “What is the link between sex and power in sexual harassment?” (2017), states that, “the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.” The research also found that “newly felt authority increases harassment tendencies among people who had been feeling low in power over a previous extended period, whether male or female.” The inference being that when people (both men and women) find themselves in new positions of power they are more likely to harass others than prior to being in the power positions.

Who Has Responsibility: Creating a Harassment-Free Workplace
Organizational culture is set at the top of the organization. James Whitehouse, president and CEO of Redhat states, “We create our organizational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around (2016). When it is our leaders who are the perpetrators of the sexual harassment, the silence can be deafening in holding them accountable. In fact, frequently, leaders seem to get more room to maneuver, in spite of their bad behavior, if they get results (Brooks, Chad, 2016).”

Leaders hold the important and sobering challenge of making sure all employees behave in a way that supports their values, including a harassment-free environment.  However, sub-cultures can form that operate with different standards and behavioral norms.  How?  Through reward and punishment systems that develop independently throughout the organization. When people can get away with or even being rewarded for bad behavior or in spite of it, that signals to others what the organization really values. This erodes organizational culture and the behaviors that are expected.

How Successful Have We Been?
No matter how well intentioned the training and communication materials are on this issue; they are not making enough of a difference.  Professors W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith in their article “Too Many Men are Bystanders to Sexual Harassment” (2017) point out what they believe is the problem, “When women are marginalized, disrespected, and harassed in an organization, focusing only on the guy at the top is a mistake. An exclusive focus on senior leaders as culprits causes us to miss a problem that is often far more serious and pervasive: everyday guys in the trenches who are missing in action when it comes to having the moral courage to stand up to such behavior.”

What Johnson and Smith point out is there needs to be a sweeping change in the way gender is handled in the workplace from a cultural perspective. What they find is that there is a significant difference between passive gender inclusion (attendance at diversity and gender workshops, working to avoid harassment and bias in one’s own relationships) and active gender inclusion (demanding respect and equity for women, in both word and deed, especially when no woman is watching). In other words, we need to rethink how we go about addressing gender inclusion in the workplace. The diversity training and mentoring programs we have really fall way short of what we, as organizational citizens, need to know and do in order for things to measurably change. This is not an issue for only women to band together but rather for people to band together, both men and women, in what needs to be the standard for how we should interact, relate and respect each other.

The 2016 EEOC report includes a detailed section of what they think organizations should do in order to address sexual harassment in the workplace.  This includes engaging leadership to ensure there is accountability, a culture that is harassment-free, comprehensive policies and procedures including “zero tolerance policies,” anti -harassment compliance training programs, workplace civility and bystander intervention training and getting the word out through comprehensive marketing efforts.

Significance of #MeToo to Social Activation and Mobilization
When Alyssa Milano launched the hashtag #MeToo for people to engage with social media channels who had been victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault she unleashed a phenomenon. Within 24 hours, more than 12 million “#MeToo” Facebook posts, comments and reactions were made. This was a courageous and important step in giving voice and amplifying the frequency and vastness of the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Through social channels people had an outlet for their voice, a safe place to no longer be isolated in what they experienced. And in so doing, an instantaneous community was formed. Notably, “me too” is not new and has roots over a decade long, started by activist Tarana Burke.  The Silence Breakers were named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” and signaled an important public recognition of the significance of what we are now witnessing. In fact, Burke commented, “It’s not just a moment, it’s a movement.” (2017)

Yes, this is the first step in creating a social movement. “Social movements are collective actions in which the populace is alerted, educated, and mobilized, over years and decades, to challenge the power holders and the whole society to redress social problems or grievances and restore critical social values” (Moyers, B.1987). Social media allows us to short-circuit that process. Milano’s effort gave rise to the voices of millions who before had no outlet. This is an important distinction that in previous decades was not available: access, the ability to network and importantly create social awareness through viral transmission.

What “#MeToo” helped do was to give voice to the “every woman or man” who felt they had been sexually harassed (or assaulted) and connect them in unity around a shared experience, regardless of their circumstance. Through the connection of “people power” as Moyers puts it, “#MeToo” gave voice to an issue where there has not been a common platform and helped raise awareness around the severity and frequency of the issue and bring it into public consciousness. Sexual harassment now no longer lives in the closet, but is out in the public domain. Now we need to build on Milano’s efforts and the millions who posted their experiences, thoughts and ideas.

Where do we go from here? Turn Up the Volume
What is required now is more than policies, communications, training, reporting procedures for infractions and oversight, although they are vital and should not be minimized. But, it is clear, with little changed in the last 40 years, more than that is needed. Much more.

According to leadership coach, Anne Loehr (2016), part of the way to eliminate bias in the workplace is to band together.  “#MeToo” helped spark that. Now we need to turn up the volume.

Organizational Responsibility: Employee Bill of Rights
Why did our Founding Fathers create the Bill of Rights?  Because they felt that the Constitution did not protect individual liberties. Originally penned by James Madison, the first ten amendments guarantee Americans freedom of speech, religion, protection of unreasonable search and seizure and the right to bear arms, among others. It serves as the cornerstone of our freedoms. Organizations can learn from this.

Employers need to step up and create their own workplace Bill of Rights, guaranteeing employees what working for their company or organization means and represents. This goes beyond a “code of conduct”, which is generally a collection of rules, principles and values that sets out to establish the culture of an organization. Through an “Employee Bill of Rights”, an organization gives definition to the experience of working there, what it will provide and what is expected of an employee in return. An Employee Bill of Rights provides the framework and operating structure for the essence and the responsibilities of of the employer-employee relationship and the obligations employees also have with each other.  An Employee Bill of Rights, as with our government’s Bill of Rights, needs to be continually reevaluated to determine if it meets the needs of the organization and its stakeholders.

A Pandemic: But There is an Antidote
We have begun to come out of the darkness and break the silence. “#MeToo” paved the way, as did many others who have come forward and told their story.  Each of us needs to speak up. We need to make it clear it is ‘repulsive’ for sexual harassers to operate and call them out when they say or do things that are compromising, uncomfortable or vile.  We need to hold each other accountable and we need to, importantly, support each other. As organizational citizens, we must build on the concept of “#MeToo” and not let what it sparked diminish but rather grow in importance.

Leaders must set the example. But they need to back this up with positive reward systems to celebrate individuals and teams who champion a harassment-free work environment and one of support and respect. That can only happen when organizations provide the structure, framework and imprimatur for people to feel they can give voice to their concerns and be supported when they do.

We need a radically new approach and a bold and strident platform for change. If anything is going to change. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Training sessions, policies and reporting procedures can only go so far in addressing this illness that has infected our workplace.We need the mobilization of “us” and our resources in order to combat this grave disorder.  It is a pandemic. Together, unified in common purpose, we are the antidote.

About the author:
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate programs at NYU and Columbia.  She served as the Chief Communication Officer for three global publicly traded companies and created the first communication program on sexual harassment in the United States, “Sexual Harassment…it’s not part of the job!”.  She advises clients on a range of business, marketing and communication issues. You can reach her at jfs2002@nyu.edu


References

Bennett, Jessica. (2017) The “MeToo” Moment: No longer Complicit”. The New York Times.

Brooks, Chad (2016). “Top Performers Behaving Badly? Don’t Let it Slide”.  Business News Daily.

Carmichael, Sarah Green (2007). “Have our Attitudes About Sexual Harassment Really Changed?” Harvard Business Review.

Detert, James R., Edmondson, Amy C. (2007) “Why Employees are afraid to speak”. Harvard Business Review.

Emerson, Joelle. (2017) “Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training – Make it Better”. Harvard Business Review.

Feldblum, Chai R., Lipnic, Victoria A. (2016) “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace”. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Goodman, Diane .J. (2002) “Motivating people from privileged groups to support”.  Social justice. https://www.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/149/Motivating-People-from-Privilege-to-Justice.pdf Retrieved from the Internet on November 20, 2017.

Grinapol, Corinne (2017). “40 Years Later, Redbook’s Survey results on Workplace Sexual Harassment are Basically the same: And they’re not good.” Adweek.

Johnson, Stefanie, Kirk, Jessica, Keplinger, Ksenia. (2016) “Why we fail to report Sexual Harassment?” Harvard Business Review.

Johnson, W. Brad, Smith, David G. (2017) “Too Many Men Are Bystanders to Sexual Harassment” Harvard Business Review.

Loehr, Anne. (2016) “Five Tips of Managing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace”. Rework.

Mateo, Ashley,  Menza, Kaitlin. (2017)“The results of a 1976 Survey of Women about Sexual Harassment at Work Remain Virtually Unchanged in 2017”. Redbook

McLaughlin, Heather, Uggen, Christopher, Blackstone, Amy.

“The Cost of Sexual Harassment” Gender and Society, June 7, 2017 https://gendersociety.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/the-cost-of-sexual-harassment/. Retrieved on November 10, 2017

Mecking, Olga. (2017) “The Spiral of Silence Theory Explains Why People Don’t Speak Up on Things That Matter”.  New York Magazine.

Moyers, B. (1987). “The Movement Action Plan: A Strategic Framework Describing The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements.” http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/moyermap.html. Retrieved on November 26, 2017

O’Leary, Lizzie, Peter Balonon-Rosen, Peter. (2017)  “How Women Pay an Economic Price for sexual harassment |https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/03/business/how-women-pay-economic-price-after-sexual-harassment. Retrieved on November 10, 2017.

Perlow, Leslie A., Williams, Stephanie. (2003) “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” Harvard Business Review.

Persaud, Ray and Bruggen, Peter. (2017) “What is the link between sex and power in sexual harassment?” Psychology Today.

https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_new.cfm Retrieved from the EEOC website on November 10, 2017.

https://www.bustle.com/p/how-common-is-sexual-harassment-at-work-almost-1-in-3-women-have-experienced-it-according-to-a-new-poll-54068 Retrieved on November 11, 2017

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/19/1-in-3-women-sexually-harassed-work-cosmopolitan_n_6713814.html Retrieved on November 11, 2017 http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/8956-unethical-behavior-employees.html

Whitehouse, James (2016) “Leaders Can Shape Company Culture Through their Behaviors”. Harvard Business Review.

Wiliams, Zoe. (2017)  “Sexual harassment 101 “What everyone Needs to know”. The Guardian

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One Comment

  1. Providing women with skills to handle one-to-one situations is key to further progress. May an old guy humbly suggest how I think women can handle a sexual harassment situation that doesn’t involve physical assault. When confronted with a problematic sexual comment or action, a woman should firmly state: “I consider what you just (said or did) to have crossed the line of sexual harassment. You get a pass this one time. (Please) don’t let it happen again. Now, let’s get back to (whatever they were doing).” The message can be delivered quietly without public embarrassment to either person. That sort of firm reaction becomes an educational experience for the man and will likely prevent any questionable behavior by him in the future. If enough women do it, men will learn and the incidence of sexual harassment will diminish significantly. Sexual assaults, of course, require a much different approach.

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