No More #Metoo: Ending Workplace Sexual Harassment

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Are Policies and Training Programs the Answer?

February 19 marked a year since Susan Fowler lifted the lid on sexual harassment at Uber, setting in motion a series of events that would reach a tipping point with the Harvey Weinstein exposé, and culminate in the #metoo and #timesup movements. Since then, thousands of women have come forward with their #metoo stories, revealing just how pervasive and ubiquitous the problem of sexual harassment really is.

We often tend to think of harassers as lone wolves, acting of their own accord. But the fact that men like Harvey Weinstein were able to allegedly get away with their actions for decades points to a deep culture of complicity – one where sexual harassment is allowed to thrive because people around its epicenter choose to turn a blind eye to it, or fail to address it with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.

That brings us to the question — how can we do a better job of preventing sexual harassment in our organizations? How do we create safer work environments where women and men are treated with dignity, and are unafraid to speak up when witnessing or being subject to inappropriate behaviors?

For years, the solution has been to develop anti-sexual harassment policies and training programs. So, employees are periodically taken through a presentation or a series of videos on how to prevent, respond to, and report incidents of sexual harassment. Then follows an online quiz and a link to the company’s anti-harassment policies. There! Done and dusted!

But is that really where a company’s responsibilities end? What happens after policies and training programs are implemented? Are there mechanisms to track compliance? A 2017 MetricStream survey report on policy management found that the majority of organizations (55%) are unaware of policy violations that might have occurred in their enterprises. In other words, they may have policies in place (including ones on anti-sexual harassment), but they may not have processes to assess compliance. And when that is the case, it doesn’t matter how good those policies or training programs might be, because without effective compliance monitoring processes, violations like sexual harassment will continue to occur.

Sometime ago, Vox carried an insightful piece on harassment training in which Harvard sociologist, Frank Dobbin, was quoted as saying that despite over 90% of large US employers having harassment trainings in place, it seems to have had very little, if any discernible effect on the overall number of reported harassment complaints. A similar observation was made in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) 2016 task force report which noted that much of the harassment training conducted over the last three decades or so “has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”

And therein lies a key issue. Too often, harassment training and policy management are treated as check-box exercises – something to be done and gotten over with for the sake of satisfying a few laws. In these cases, businesses are more concerned about defending themselves against possible lawsuits than on solving a persistent problem. Therefore, the approach to the prevention of sexual harassment is often one-dimensional and lacking in depth.

Sexual harassment is ultimately a cultural issue. And cultural issues need holistic solutions. Certainly, policies and training programs are important, but they are just one piece of the puzzle. They tell people what to do. But companies also need to be listening – having periodic conversations with employees to detect issues of sexual harassment that may have been hidden for fear of retaliation; making it as simple and quick as possible for victims of harassment to report complaints; ensuring that all complaints are investigated and dealt with swiftly and effectively; and providing both psychological and legal counseling to victims wherever necessary. The aim must be to create an environment where women and men are comfortable enough to talk about harassment without fearing for their safety, jobs, or privacy.

Systems of accountability are also important. A 2017 ABC News-Washington Post poll found that among US women who’ve personally experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, 95% reported that male harassers usually go unpunished. That needs to change. No matter how high up on the management team or board the accused might be, they must be held accountable and penalized appropriately for their actions.

Finally, diversity matters. The EEOC lists single-sex dominated workplace cultures and gendered power disparities as key risk factors that lead to harassment. Mitigating these risks calls for better gender ratios, particularly in leadership positions. When is a better balance of women and men on management teams and boards, there are fewer chances that a culture of toxic machismo will be allowed to thrive.

At the end of the day, the problem of sexual harassment goes beyond the four walls of the corporation. It’s a human issue that affects everyone. Therefore, it’s important that we approach it not from a corporate or legal standpoint, but from a human perspective. How do we build a group of people who are sensitized to the issue; who know what constitutes sexual harassment and how to address it effectively; who listen to, stand up, and support victims of assault and abuse—both men and women—not just in the enterprise but outside it as well? Finding answers to these questions will be key to creating better societies in a post #metoo world, and ensuring that the courage of countless women and men who’ve dared to raise their voices up against sexual harassment, hasn’t been in vain.

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