Elizabeth Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP

On any given day, you can do a Google search for “sexual harassment,” click on the “News” link, and find dozens of headlines about recent sexual harassment allegations. The stories cross geographies and industries and they show how little has been invested in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Ongoing Battle Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

While no organization wants to believe that sexual harassment in the workplace could be an issue for them, the sad reality is that sexual harassment has a far-reaching impact. Reports in the media seem to occur almost daily as one company or prominent individual at a time becomes the focus of coverage that can do great damage to their brands—from both a customer and employee standpoint—among other devastating impacts.

No company is immune to the need to create and maintain a workplace that is free of harassment. Unfortunately, sexual harassment at work has been an issue for decades despite a simultaneous corporate focus on providing training and implementing policies about harassment. The sad truth is that most of what companies have historically done to battle harassment just hasn’t worked. Worse, in some cases, the sexual harassment prevention training that is being provided is doing more harm than good.

Discrimination & Sexual Harassment Prevention Training for Supervisors

The most effective way to a prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace is to empower your supervisors. Give them the tools they need to identify warning signs and follow the proper protocols.

7 Ways to  Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By taking a different approach to addressing sexual harassment prevention, employers can effectively diminish the potential for harassment and ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace for all. Here are seven solutions to preventing sexual harassment at work.

1. Make it Crystal Clear that Sexual Harassment Prevention is a Company Priority

The #MeToo movement and a myriad of sexual harassment cases have come to light in recent years. . As a result, there is a growing awareness and the need to be proactive in the workplace. Companies must take steps to educate and inform staff about these types of behaviors that will not be tolerated in the workplace. Organizations should review their harassment policies regularly. And, they should communicate about these policies and the principles they reflect frequently—not just during onboarding or annual training cycles, but all through the year in all-staff and smaller team meetings, in internal company communications, and more. 

But not all communications are created equal. To help sexual harassment prevention at work, research shows that communications should not be tepid in tone; rather, they should include strong, unequivocal statements that the prevention of sexual harassment is a high priority for the company and that any employee who violates the policies against it will be held accountable, regardless of their position in the company. Finally, to truly be effective, it is critical that these communications come from leaders throughout the organization, preferably top executives, and not just HR. If company leadership regularly and authentically communicates that sexual harassment prevention training is a high priority and will be taken seriously, managers and employees will follow suit. 

2. Make Sure That Employees and Management Understand What Sexual Harassment Is

It may seem that it should be obvious what sexual harassment at work is, but employers need to take steps to ensure that staff members understand exactly the types of actions and behaviors that are inappropriate. This isn’t only about egregious acts of inappropriate physical contact. Sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of behaviors and actions that are objectionable and undesirable including making inappropriate sexual comments, displaying or watching inappropriate content, etc. If employees know that these actions are unacceptable, it is easier for them to understand how to avoid sexual harassment claims in the future.

Equally important is educating executives, managers, and employees about the more subtle forms of sexual harassment. These lower-stake behaviors or comments not only damage working relationships and team culture but also if left unchecked, may escalate into more egregious harassment.

A Meaningful Response to #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has proven, just because harassment in the workplace may not be visible, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Learn about the challenges of creating a workplace free of harassment and strategies for building a supportive workplace culture.

3. Keep Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Positive

Employees don’t respond well to insinuations—or outright statements—that they’re doing something wrong, that they can’t be trusted, or that they’re assumed to be guilty of engaging in bad behaviors. Much sexual harassment training is focused on the negative—what not to do—which can signal to employees a belief that they may be part of the problem; that is, if left to their own devices, that they will harass others. Instead, prevention research shows that taking a positive approach is a better way to get the message across and engage employees in helping to create and nurture the desired environment.

Using positive messaging that assumes employees want to do the right thing (because the vast majority of employees do!), engages them to be a part of the solution to harassment in the workplace,, and motivates them to help promote a respectful culture can be far more effective in shaping employee conduct than a “stick” approach that focuses on bad behavior and consequences to be avoided.

4. Lighten Up on the Legalese

Just as negative messaging fails to resonate with employees, a strong focus on the laws and regulations related to sexual harassment can be a quick deterrent for employees. Yes, these issues need to be covered for compliance reasons. But they don’t have to serve as the sole foundation for your sexual harassment prevention training and communication efforts. Most employees aren’t employment law experts, so using legal language as the yardstick against which acceptable workplace conduct is measured and case law fact patterns to guide daily actions can drive behavior standards to the lowest common denominator. It can signal that as long as words or actions aren’t illegal, they are acceptable.

In contrast, a focus on professional, respectful behavior is more likely to engage and influence employees and managers than a focus on identifying legal violations. Thus, while it is necessary to include legal compliance content where it is required by law, be sure to balance that with additional guidance and examples that reflect a higher standard: your company’s values, policies, and culture.

5. Enlist Employees in Ensuring a Harassment-Free Workplace

HR leaders, managers, and supervisors can’t be monitoring harassment 24/7. But, by enlisting the aid of employees themselves, companies can boost the odds that incidents or warning signs of harassment will be seen, reported and acted upon—and even prevented. HR isn’t responsible for the prevention of sexual harassment at work. All employees are. And all employees can be trained to serve as good bystanders—helping to support a positive and respectful culture by:

  • Interrupting incidences of harassment or its warning signs
  • Supporting others who have experienced harm after the fact
  • Formally reporting harassment
  • Encouraging others’ allyship

Employees have an important role to play as active bystanders. Letting employees know that they play this role and providing them with training and resources to help them take action are important steps in leveraging the power of the masses to create a culture of safety and respect. Of course, not all employees will feel comfortable personally stepping in to diffuse a situation. There are other steps they could take, though, including interrupting or distracting the individual who is acting inappropriately or reporting the issue to HR or management.

Bystander Intervention

6. Enlist Employees as Social Influencers

Who are employees most likely to listen to as a trusted source: their HR department or their peers at work? The latter, of course. In fact, research conducted by Edelman, the Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that: “The biggest story of the last 16 years of Edelman Trust Barometer data has been the demise of traditional authority and the corresponding rise of ‘a person like me’ (friends, peers or a person we believe shares similar values or characteristics) as a trusted source of information.”

That’s good news for organizations that can leverage key employees as social influencers to help support a harassment-free environment. Reach out to influential employees to seek their support for harassment prevention efforts and their input on how communication and training can be improved to be most effective. 

7. Take Swift and Decisive Actions as Issues Arise

If employees feel that nothing will be done if sexual harassment issues emerge, they will stop reporting these incidents, andthose employees who may commit harm may feel emboldened to continue acting inappropriately. Thus, it is critical that employers respond promptly to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace, engage in a thorough and objective review/investigation of the matter, impose meaningful consequences as appropriate, and let the reporter know that they have done so. While organizations often are not able to share specific and personal information about disciplinary actions taken, they can communicate generally about these actions and the organization’s absolute commitment to holding people accountable for incidents of sexual harassment.

Putting these preventative strategies to work in your organization can help you prevent sexual harassment at work while building a culture that is respectful and supportive. Take steps to ensure that your sexual harassment prevention training doesn’t fall flat, or worse, have the opposite effect of what you intended.

Implementing Prevention Sexual Harassment Strategies Effectively

Putting these preventative strategies to work in your organization can help you prevent sexual harassment at work while building a culture that is respectful and supportive. Successfully preventing workplace sexual harassment goes beyond adopting the outlined strategies; it requires their consistent and effective execution. Leadership should set a clear tone, messages should be straightforward, and every organization member should be committed to building a culture of respect and intolerance of harassment.

Your sexual harassment prevention training should be more than a routine exercise. It needs to be engaging and promote positive behavior, serving as a platform for open discussions and reinforcing the company’s stand against harassment. As new challenges emerge, be ready to review and adjust your approach accordingly.

Preventing Sexual Harassment

Adopting these strategies can be crucial in ensuring your workplace remains free from sexual harassment. Remember, creating a respectful, supportive work environment requires a concerted effort from every member of the organization. Continue investing in regular training and updating your policies to tackle any new challenges that arise. By doing so, your workplace can stand as a positive example of a respectful and harassment-free environment.

Harassment Prevention Training

EVERFI designs global ethics and compliance courses that educate employees on important skills relating to harassment, diversity, security and culture—protecting your people and your bottom line.