In an interview last month, the 2016 Republican presidential nominee stated that if his daughter were sexually harassed, he “would like to think she would find another career or find another company.” His son later stated that because his sister was “a strong, powerful woman[, s]he wouldn’t let herself be, you know, subjected to [sexual harassment].” Both comments have sparked a backlash that has once again brought the issue of sexual harassment to the fore.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made employment discrimination unlawful in the United States. Eleven years later, the United States recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. As illustrated by recent headlines and high-profile allegations, sexual harassment, is still a high-profile issue in U.S. workplaces. One way to ensure a harassment-free workplace is to get back to basics.
1. Model your policy.
It’s not enough to simply have a policy against harassment and discrimination. The key is enforcing it at all levels of the organization, not just against poor performers or other unpopular figures. It would be helpful to enlist executives to actively model desired behavior. If the leaders of a company do not value and exemplify workplace policies in everything they do, their ambivalence might empower others at all levels of the organization to disregard the policy.
2. Never stop training—and make executives train too!
Mandatory sexual harassment training in organizations is sometimes met with groans and eye rolling from participants: Sexual harassment training again? Don’t we know all this stuff already?
Don’t give up. Training is an important way to reach people and influence opinions, particularly if you use current examples from the real world. Training also helps employees understand that just because they heard something third-hand, it does not make the information “hearsay” upon which they cannot act by raising it up the chain. It’s important for employers to train their employees, executives, and managers. In addition, employers should ensure that new managers receive anti-harassment training within a specified time from their promotion dates.
3. Investigate honestly.
Another important step is to train workplace investigators to keep an open mind and not prejudge cases. Individuals who have been harassed need to know that when they bring their concerns forward, the employer is going to conduct a prompt investigation and take appropriate action. If employees think that their complaints will not be investigated by a company representative with an open mind to the situation, their willingness to bring up such concerns before they go too far may be chilled.
It is important for employers follow up with both parties to discuss the results of the investigation. Employers will also want to be sensitive to the possible allegations of retaliation that may be brought by either party. This is particularly important if the alleged harasser remains in the workplace, either because the incident was appropriately handled by an action short of termination or because, ultimately, after a thoughtful, comprehensive, and prompt investigation the employer could not substantiate the complaining employee’s concerns.
4. Take Appropriate Remedial Action.
Finally, swift appropriate remedial action can be critical—not just to avoid liability, but also to ensure that the company’s sexual harassment policy is effectual. What this means is that employers should fashion remedial action appropriately to ensure that the conduct does not recur.
Sexual harassment, like many forms of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, often exploits power dynamics at play in workplace relationships. Party A has some sort of power advantage over Party B and so Party A exercises that power advantage. Sometimes it’s simply because Party A can. Other times, it’s because Party A wants to send a message to Party B to “know his or her place.”
Unfortunately, too many victims of sexual harassment leave organizations rather than come forward to challenge their harassers, thereby depriving those organizations of their talents and the strengths of employee diversity, productivity, and morale. By taking a few simple steps, organizations can help retain that talent and keep employees focused on the good work they do every day without the distraction of conduct that has no business in the workplace.