Introduction and Overview
In an era of unprecedented change and disruption, events in the U.S. and beyond highlight the gaps in fair treatment that continue to characterize human interactions in individual relationships, business settings, and in the greater context of societies worldwide. Discrimination still exists in many forms, and organizations remain challenged to effectively identify and eradicate it.
Where business enterprises are concerned, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that refers to illegal sexual conduct in the workplace. It may be experienced by employees of any gender. In fact it may extend beyond gender to encompass offensive conduct toward those of any sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and more.
When sexual harassment occurs at work, the harm done can reach far beyond the individuals immediately involved. Victims of sexual harassment may be left with lasting physical and emotional scars. They may suffer career and economic injuries, sustain harm to their personal and professional reputations, and experience other hardships. In organizations where sexual harassment is ignored or addressed ineffectually, brand reputation, productivity, employee morale and engagement, talent attraction and retention, profitability, and other critical performance capabilities may be irreparably damaged.
|Sexual Harassment Affects....
Psychological/Emotional Impact (anxiety, depression, fear, low self-esteem); Physical Impact (muscle aches, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems); Financial Impact if employee leaves due to harassment (loss of income, negative impact on earning potential and career trajectory); Potential negative impact on reputation
Low employee morale/productivity; Financial impact; Loss of reputation
Low morale/productivity; Shame for not speaking up; Stress
The Accused Harasser
Loss of job/career; Loss of reputation; Financial Impact; Stress; Impact on Personal Relationships
With so much at risk, effective prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace is vital to the health and survival of organizations and their workforces.
Understanding Sexual Harassment
Definition of Sexual Harassment
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
…U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws pertaining to various types of discrimination, including that which is based on sex (including gender identify, transgender status, and sexual orientation). Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VII, a federal law which specifies multiple kinds of illegal discrimination, pertains to organizations that employ 15 or more people, as well as federal, state, and local governments; employment agencies; and labor organizations. In addition, many states have sexual harassment prevention laws that pertain to the private sector, including organizations that employ fewer than 15 workers.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. According to the EEOC:
- The victim and harasser may be male or female, and the victim and harasser may be the same or opposite sex.
- The harasser may be the victim’s co-worker, supervisor, a supervisor in another area of the organization, an agent of the employer, or a non-employee.
- The victim may be the person harassed, but could also be “anyone affected by the offensive conduct.”
- Sexual harassment may or may not cause economic injury or the victim’s discharge by the employer.
- The conduct by the harasser “must be unwelcome.”
Types of Sexual Harassment
Experts describe two types of sexual harassment:
|1. Hostile Work Environment
- Occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex unreasonably interfere with work performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
- Can be unwelcome and offensive written/visual, verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct.
- Is a pattern that is so severe or pervasive that it interferes with the employee’s ability to do their job or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Can also be a one-time severe and egregious act.
|• Third Party Hostile Work Environment
- Occurs when a non-employee—customer, vendor, distributor, contractor, or other—creates an intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment for an employee.
|• Indirect Hostile Work Environment
- Occurs when an individual is negatively impacted by sexual conduct that does not happen directly to them (e.g., an employee experiences an offensive, hostile work environment based on sexual conduct that targets a co-worker).
|2. Quid Pro Quo
- Occurs when an individual in authority requests sex, sexual favors, or a sexual relationship.
- Acceptance or rejection of the request can impact the victimized employee’s job, resulting in a tangible employment action (e.g., job perks, desirable work, promotion, undesirable work, demotion, termination, etc.).
Can be either a direct or implied this-for-that (quid pro quo) element.
Why Sexual Harassment Prevention Is a Continuing Challenge
Despite such widespread efforts as the #MeToo movement, and media coverage of high-profile incidents of sexual harassment and accused perpetrators, attempts to eradicate the negative behaviors from workplaces have not achieved desired levels of success.
Why is it so difficult to prevent sexual harassment? Contributing factors are many. Despite the enhanced visibility of harassment cases in recent years, workplace discrimination experts question how seriously society regards it as a problem and point to often-protracted legal actions that fail to result in victims’ favor.
Other thought leaders blame businesses for choosing their own financial well-being over doing right by victimized employees. Still others say harassers target victims who are least likely to report incidents because they are desperate for continued paychecks or lack the self-esteem or support to fight for their rights. These are but a few of the variables affecting sexual harassment prevention outcomes.
Other Roadblocks to Preventing Sexual Harassment
In its ebook From Awareness to Action: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Once & For All, Media Partners describes six roadblocks it says are “getting in the way of solving the issue.”
For their part, victims of sexual harassment may choose not to report incidents out of fear that speaking up will cost them their jobs (and income). They may think they won’t be believed, that their reports won’t be acted upon, or that they’ll be blamed for harassment. Perhaps the ultimate fear is that of retaliation by the harasser.
Fear can paralyze witnesses to sexual harassment, too. Again, concerns about retaliation may play a big role in keeping bystanders silent. Witnesses also may fail to act because they don’t see others speaking out, leaving them to fear that taking action is not an appropriate response in the context or culture of their organization.
2. Poor Organizational Policies
Because some states or other authorities choose to put responsibility for sexual harassment prevention policies in the hands of the very business organizations in which problems occur, formal and effective policies against harassment may be lacking. This can leave employees unsure about what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do about incidents when they occur. Ineffective policies also undercut victims’ abilities to take action and gain restitution.
3. Training Costs and Logistics
Faced with the prospect of lost work time and associated costs to productivity and bottom lines—coupled with additional expenses to build or buy training programs—company leaders may refuse to insist on quality sexual harassment prevention training for their workforces. The fallacy in that failure to act is that organizations may then be put at risk for millions of dollars in fines and legal judgments because of harassment-provoked litigation.
4. Prevention Training Fails to Drive Behavior Change
Whether content of sexual harassment prevention training programs fails to engage audiences, or doesn’t present material that is relevant or practical to apply, many learning and development professionals agree that prevention education has fallen short in positively shifting employee behaviors. Even professionals who express satisfaction with training products often report poor results because training isn’t followed-up and reinforced systematically.
5. Employees Resist Prevention Training
Research by Media Partners found that employee resistance is the leading challenge underlying sexual harassment prevention training (as reported by learning and HR professionals). Differing personal perspectives, discomfort in addressing sexual harassment, and other issues may cloud employees’ views about prevention training, ultimately making them resistant to educational efforts and requiring employers to take significant actions to change mindsets.
6. Confusion about Compliance
When sexual harassment prevention training is required by government entities, confusion is a frequent result. With an increasing number of states taking action to mandate training, business leaders may be challenged to understand their legal obligations to provide appropriate training for their workforces. Qualified training providers with knowledge of current compliance requirements across all U.S. locations are must-have resources for organizations to ensure effective training compliance.