Preventing Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Sexual harassment is one of the most significant risks to your organization, and prevention is everyone’s business.

sexual harassmentBetween 2010 and 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 28,000 harassment charges and companies paid $125 million in sexual harassment penalties. The US Merit System Protection Board estimates that 40-70% of woman and 13-31% of men experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. One study even showed that sexual harassment costs companies $22,500 per (targeted) person in lost productivity alone. Yet despite the penalties paid, harassment behaviors still occur at an alarming rate.

No industry is immune to sexual harassment. In recent months we have seen sexual harassment in virtually every industry, and the creation and mobilization of a global social media movement that gives victims a voice and exposes sexual harassment prevalence. What was once an underground taboo subject is now front and center for every leader and board member to see. The #MeToo movement reports that more than 17 million women have been victims of sexual harassment since 1998. Twitter confirmed that more than 1.7 million Tweets have been made with the hashtag and its translations worldwide. Those numbers are still continuing to grow.

So, what is causing this?

The Perfect Storm

Two organizational conditions create the perfect storm for sexual harassment: a climate of tolerance and a culture of silence.

A climate of tolerance exists when employees see that harassment is tolerated and that there is no consequence for harassment behavior.

“If you are a senior leader and think the coast is clear because no incidents have been reported in your organization, you may be fooling yourself.”

A culture of silence exists when employees willfully withhold valuable work-related information. One type of silence culture is futility. This exists when employees realize that nothing happens when they voice concerns, ideas or solutions. As a result, employees give up and stay silent because trying to voice views and opinions seem to fall on deaf ears.

Victims’ harassment tolerance perceptions, the fear of being adversely labeled, potential retaliation, and a culture of silence can influence the disclosure decision. For example, in one study, only 25% of university employees who experienced sexual harassment actually reported it.

Another study showed that of the 63% of victims who sought help after harassment, 93% experienced negative physical symptoms and 73% experienced emotional distress such as anger and increased anxiety. Another study showed that of the 447 female respondents, “64% said the harassment lasted between one week to six months, 66% rated the incident as ‘offensive,’ or ‘extremely offensive,’ 56% reported the incident as ‘upsetting,’ or ‘extremely upsetting,’ and 83% reported that they had to continue working with the perpetrator.”

With all of this research and knowledge, what can be done to stop this?

Preventing the Perfect Storm

When victims experience a climate of intolerance they are more likely to report harassment incidents. Clear anti-harassment policies and leadership response practices influence this culture of intolerance.

When a victim believes that it is NOT futile to report an incident, they are more likely to report it. For example, if an organization declares a “Zero Tolerance” harassment policy and the leadership actually believes and demonstrates this policy, victims are more likely to report incidents than if the policy is merely words on a piece of paper or plastic card.

The best harassment prevention strategy is three-fold:

  • Clear anti-harassment policies; with formal reporting and investigation mechanisms in place.
  • Shaping and sustaining a Culture of Voice.
  • Leadership training in legal, behavioral, and procedural harassment responsiveness.

Anti-harassment is everyone’s business. Organization decision makers must take the problem seriously. If you are a senior leader and think the coast is clear because no incidents have been reported in your organization, you may be fooling yourself.

Start with crystal clear Anti-Harassment Policies. Declaring Zero Tolerance is the most powerful message for all employees.

Begin measuring the levels of silence and voice in your organization. Silence is one of the two variables that make for a perfect storm. Be certain that you know where silence micro-cultures exist and map a plan to reshape a culture of voice in every business area where silence is a risk. You can’t prevent harassment if it’s hidden in silence.

Make sure that every leader has a deep understanding of the practices that represent risk of harassment within the organization, how to recognize signs of harassment, and how to intervene if it exists.

Harassment is one of the most significant risks to your organization. Prevention is everyone’s business.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events