What corporate America needs to do if it wants to stop sexual harassment

Companies should change the way they handle sexual harassment training and complaints.
Companies should change the way they handle sexual harassment training and complaints.
Image: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
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Sexual harassment very likely happens in your organization.

While it’s difficult to measure precisely, a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimated that anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Just because you haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened: 75 percent of those who experience harassment don’t report it, and three out of four who do speak out face some form of retaliation. In fact, the EEOC found that most victims deny or downplay the gravity of their experience and try to ignore, forget, or endure their colleague’s inappropriate behavior.

As HR Practice Leader at CEB, now Gartner, a large part of my role is to guide the development of our clients’ strategic plans to attract, manage, and retain top talent. When reviewing the rules and standards in place to address sexual harassment in the workplace, it never ceases to amaze me that many well-established, modernized companies still rely on an outdated, ineffective playbook.

The standard response from HR executives when sexual misconduct is alleged looks something like this:

  • Wait for an employee to make a complaint.
  • Investigate and file a report.
  • Do everything in your power to keep the matter private, with the goal of reaching a financial settlement between the harasser and the accuser.

This approach was never satisfactory, and it’s no longer something organizations can hope to get away with. Possible bad publicity aside, handling harassment privately and quietly, on a case-by-case basis, won’t help if the real problem is having a company culture that enables and encourages harassers. Modern organizations that really care about their employees need to structure their policies with the goal of identifying and fundamentally changing that unhealthy culture.

Making this shift from a reactive response to sexual harassment to a proactive culture of respect and equitable treatment means that HR needs a new playbook in which leaders are required to do things like:

Stop waiting for employees to report harassment

A growing number of companies are now working on technological solutions to make it easier for victims to report incidents of sexual harassment and follow up with their employer or the authorities. Rather than waiting for an employee to call a hotline or use an app to report harassment (which victims seldom do), organizations need to start listening to what employees are already saying. For instance, some companies are now using social listening tools to get an aggregated, anonymized view of what their employees are talking about on social media. Without identifying or exposing individual victims, employers can use these tools to get a sense of how often sexual harassment or the #MeToo hashtag comes up within their workforce. If employees are talking about this issue on Twitter or LinkedIn, or even on an anonymous chat forum like Blind, actively monitoring these channels (with deference to individual employees’ privacy) can help prevent an employer from dramatically underestimating the amount of harassment going on in their workplace.

Make sure employees know what happens to harassers

While companies will say they have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, that is rarely the reality when harassment actually occurs. Instead, compromises are made, exceptions are created, and other conditions emerge that protect the harasser from termination. A common refrain heard from harassers is that they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong (and thus shouldn’t be punished). To break through this fog, companies need to explicitly tell employees what will happen if they commit any form of harassment–there can be no doubt as to the outcome if these behaviors occur. Then, to ensure that the workforce is fully aware of the organization’s seriousness regarding harassment, leaders need to communicate to staff when harassment has occurred, and what has happened to the harasser. Without this transparency, companies will not succeed in changing employee behavior.

Put fairness at the center of the culture

Most employees, and almost all harassers, will not change their behavior simply because they are told to do so by senior leaders or HR. In fact, CEB research shows that such an approach has only a 1% impact on the effectiveness of culture change efforts within an organization. Instead, companies have to build the culture they want into their business processes. In this case, that means structuring recruiting, promotion, and rewards processes so that they treat all employees fairly, with no room for managers’ biases. This takes an important tool of power away from potential harassers and abusers while tangibly and visibly demonstrating the cultural value of fairness.

Companies that have instituted a clear process for swiftly handling sexual misconduct allegations will find themselves with an advantage over those that don’t, both reputationally and when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. By better educating and listening to employees, and by being clear about ramifications, companies can help protect potential victims and dissuade would-be harassers. If not handled properly, sexual harassment will continue to plague workplace culture and have a negative impact on employees and employers.

Dr. Brian Kropp is Gartner’s HR Practice Leader.