Why Is Your Sexual Harassment Policy Failing?

Harassment is one of the top complaints that employees make to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Of the approximately 90,000 charges employees filed with the agency in the last three years, harassment charges made up nearly a third—and close to half of these involved sexual harassment.

For every sexual harassment complaint, many more incidents go unreported, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported in June of 2016. Litigation risk is one reason why these days, nearly every employer has a sexual harassment policy. Even companies that have made a splash in the headlines for sexual harassment have sexual harassment policies, at least on paper.

But that’s the problem. If everyone has a policy, why is sexual harassment so prevalent? A recent study co-authored by University of Missouri Communication Professor Debbie S. Dougherty explores why.

Employees Misinterpret Sexual Harassment Policies

In the study, 24 employees of large government organizations were asked to read their employer’s sexual harassment policy, gather in groups to discuss it, then answer questions about what they thought it meant. Unfortunately, the study’s authors concluded that “the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy.”

Perceptions vs. Behavior

Employees believed the policies focused on perceptions of harassment, whereas the policies actually focused on preventing sexually harassing behavior. They also missed that policies prohibited sexual harassment regardless of the gender of the harasser or the target.

These misinterpretations led to the misperception that heterosexual males could be targeted as sexual harassers based on subjective perceptions of female co-workers. Under this interpretation, innocent comments about a co-worker’s appearance or incidental nonsexual touching could be considered sexual harassment.

Dougherty explains:

“As a result, the organization’s sexual harassment policy was perceived as both highly irrational and as targeting heterosexual male employees. The employees shifted the meaning of the policy such that female targets of sexual harassment were framed as the perpetrators and male perpetrators were framed as innocent victims.”

To accomplish this shift in meaning, the employees drew on the assumptions of women being irrational and highly emotional and on assumptions of men are being rational and competent. Through this intertwining of organizational policy, organizational culture, and national culture, the employees inverted the meaning of the sexual harassment policy, making it an ineffective tool in the fight against predatory sexual behavior in the workplace.”

Stereotypes and Discrimination

These assumptions point to sexual stereotypes that may be embedded in company culture, which in turn are deeply rooted in the larger culture. Company culture is hard enough to change, and corporate leaders are rarely in a position to make big changes in society at large. While policy alone won’t change culture at the level of the company or of the country, employers can fight sex discrimination and be part of the solution.

Effective Sexual Harassment Policies

An effective policy is a step in the right direction. To be effective, policy needs to live and breathe in practice. It shouldn’t reinforce or appear to reinforce negative cultural mores or, worse, create new ones in the minds of employees.

So, what can policy-makers and compliance personnel do to keep workers from figuratively tearing their well-drafted sexual harassment policies to shreds?

How to Improve Your Sexual Harassment Policies

The study makes two surprising recommendations:

  1. Include emotion-laden language in your sexual harassment policy
  2. Mandate that bystanders intervene to stop harassment

Use Clear, Emotion-Laden Language

The first recommendation requires a bit of explanation. Of course, sexual harassment policies don’t make for the most scintillating reading. But that’s Dougherty’s point. Since most policies are quite dry, employees tend to insert their own emotions and (wrong) ideas into them.

To help frame the behavior in clear, emotion-laden language, Dougherty suggests characterizing sexual harassment as “predatory” and harassed employees as “targets” rather than “victims.”

But Dougherty doesn’t assume that reframing sexual harassment policies in this way is easy:

“Although policies tend to be stripped of emotions, it is essential for policy creators to recognize that policy creation is one of the most emotion-laden activities that organizational leaders are asked to accomplish. Because sexual harassment is such an emotionally laden topic, the creation of sexual harassment policies becomes even more emotionally challenging.”

Mandate Bystander Intervention

The second recommendation is more straightforward, but not widely practiced. Most sexual harassment policies, Daugherty observes, require only the target of harassment to take action (specifically, by reporting).

By calling on employers to mandate bystander intervention, Dougherty hopes to mitigate the stigma of reporting (and the organizational harm that results from not reporting) when the sole duty is placed on the target’s shoulders. “Mandated bystander intervention,” writes Dougherty, “rightly puts the responsibility of creating a healthier organizational culture on all members of the organization.”

In this sentiment, she echoes the EEOC’s proclamation that “it’s on us”—every employee at every organizational level—to prevent harassment. Presumably because witnesses to sexual harassment aren’t born with the tools to determine an appropriate response in any given situation, the EEOC recommends that employers implement bystander intervention training.

Train Employees on Your Policies

A well-crafted policy also needs to be communicated to employees. That’s where training comes in. But having ineffective training for a well-written policy is just as bad as having an ineffective (or no) policy. Bad training can even backfire, like poorly crafted sexual harassment policies.

That’s probably why Dougherty concludes that:

“No policy, no matter how well crafted, will prevent sexual harassment on its own, nor will it change a culture of sexual harassment. A policy is a first step that needs to be followed by persistent training, a willingness to listen to targets, and a readiness to fire employees who prey sexually on other employees — regardless of how important the predator may be in the organization.”

Note the effective use of emotion-laden language.

Effective Sexual Harassment Training for Your Organization

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