EVERFI Content Team

In coverage of the ever-evolving #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, officials, experts, and activists have largely pointed towards a primary fix: driving culture change in the workplace.

This strategy has been recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as having, “the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.” Additionally, it appears to be the basis of California’s sexual harassment training mandate, SB 1343, in addition to similar mandates in New York City and New York State.

But what precisely do experts mean when they say culture change? How, precisely, are businesses expected to achieve such a seemingly lofty goal? And why would workplace culture change prevent sexual harassment?

What is corporate culture?

Despite its seemingly intangible nature, culture is indeed something that can be observed and influenced. At its core, workplace culture is a combination of the values and expectations of a group, which is codified through the rewards and punishments—formal and informal—assigned to various behaviors.

And while some academics make a subtle distinction between organizational “climate” and “culture,” we will use the term  “culture” throughout this article to encompass both concepts.

Or, as explained by one EEOC expert witness testimony:

Organizational climate is an important driver of harassment because it is the norm of the workplace; it basically guides employees . . . to know what to do when no one is watching.

Workplace culture change and sexual harassment

In order to understand why a healthy culture is a cornerstone of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s necessary to examine the prevailing wisdom that preceded it.

Sexual harassment prevention efforts in the U.S. largely started in the ‘70sby professional personnel experts and lawyers. The former recommended two primary tools to combat harassment: training and employee grievance filing systems.

Though even this initial effort was criticized by many lawyers in the field, this model nevertheless grew in prominence.

Due to flaws in the design and implementation, however, they served more as protection against legal action rather than addressing the root causes of corporate harassment.

Further, studies from the early 2000s showed that a large portion of those who complained later indicated that they faced some form of retaliation from their employers, thus chilling reporting of concerns and leading many employees to view reporting as risky.

Training, meanwhile, appeared more geared towards compliance with legal standards than actual prevention, with studies suggesting that they may lead to a backfire effect that reinforced negative female stereotypes.

Ultimately, these efforts proved ill-equipped to the task. The frequent use of arbitration clauses and confidentiality agreements in sexual harassment suits also have kept victims silent, until the rise of the #MeToo movement.

Social science evolved, confirming culture’s role in the prevalence and prevention of sexual harassment.

In no small irony, the development of culture change as a method of sexual harassment prevention developed alongside cultural currents that suggested sexual violence was inherent to relationships between men and women.

This attitude is well illustrated in a 1975 US District Court sexual harassment case, Corne v. Bausch and Lomb, Inc. Here, two female clerical workers brought a suit alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The workers claimed they were “repeatedly subjected to verbal and physical sexual advances” from a supervisor, but the judge dismissed the claim, writing:

Also, an outgrowth of holding such activity to be actionable under Title VII would be a potential federal lawsuit every time any employee made amorous or sexually-oriented advances toward another. The only sure way an employer could avoid such charges would be to have employees who were asexual.

Although just two years later the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would vacate this holding (and federal courts had begun to recognize that sexual harassment is illegal discrimination by 1976), the District Court judge’s reasoning quoted above remains emblematic of the times.

However, as social research and women’s rights groups advanced after the ’70s, cracks in this narrative emerged. According to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, researchers confirmed a long-held feminist theory that sexual violence didn’t exclusively originate from pathology but was reinforced by culture as well.

Research intensified in the ‘80s due in large part to researcher Mary Koss, who published the Ms. Magazine Project on Campus Sexual Assault in 1984, revealing the overwhelming number of female college students who experienced rape.

In the mid ’90s, growing workplace diversity research suggested that changing organizational culture could foster a more inclusive environment for protected minorities. Later the following decade, in an influential 1996 research paper, Preventing workplace harassment: an organizational change perspective, the paper’s authors applied this model to sexual harassment prevention.

In the paper, researchers argued that making employers responsible for preventing sexual harassment leads to prevention programs designed primarily to avoid liability. Instead, the authors argued, employees should play a foundational role in preventing sexual harassment.

We contend that a more effective approach to preventing harassment involves developing employee responsibility for maintaining a harassment-free work environment, thus developing an environment of mutual respect where individuals take it on themselves to monitor and eliminate harassment from the workplace.

It wouldn’t be until just before the rise of the #MeToo movement that culture change became more broadly recognized as a critical element of sexual harassment prevention.

How does culture change prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Ultimately, culture change has risen to such levels of endorsement by tackling headfirst many longstanding roadblocks.

The widely pervasive fear of retaliation is addressed by creating a culture of accountability: through clear and consistently applied processes and policies, including a safe reporting system, prompt and thorough workplace investigations, and proportional punishments for those found to have committed harassment.

According to the EEOC, further confidence in reporting systems and prevention programs can be gained both by professionals held accountable for the success of programs—rewarded for correctly addressing a complaint, and penalized for failing to do so—and by everyone else in the organization, through appropriate management communications about the effectiveness of these programs.

Leadership plays an enormous role in not only appropriately funding and delegating the necessary authority to run such programs but also offering their vocal support to them as well. Studies show that when business leaders publically convey the seriousness of sexual harassment, employees take harassment more seriously as well. This messaging also requires action to engender a feeling of fairness amongst workers. Additionally, workplaces that handle harassment well generally acknowledge their inability to prevent all misconduct, openly discussing the workplace’s broader approach and climate.

This open discussion needs to be combined with strategies that communicate healthy workplace behaviors and expectations, and also engage the healthy majority to become a part of the sexual harassment prevention solution. Two such strategies are social norms marketing and bystander intervention training, which directly addresses the social norms present in a workplace culture that can either facilitate or squash harassment.

Witnesses to workplace incidents often misperceive their coworkers as being more tolerant of harassment than they actually are, and the fear of breaching this incorrectly perceived social norm often leads witnesses to avoid intervention. This, in turn, further reinforces a misperception on the part of those who commit harassment that cultural norms tolerate this behavior.

Through social norms marketing, communications to employees close the gap between these misperceived social norms and reality: they convey that the majority of people want to foster healthy relationships, and don’t approve of harassment, and want their coworkers to step in to help. Reinforcing the true norms of the healthy majority through workplace communications helps reassure witnesses that intervention would be supported, and encourages all to engage in more positive behavior–and helps redefine workplace culture, and ultimately prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Bystander intervention training then builds upon this foundation of positive messaging about true workplace norms and this powerful call to action to give employees specifically, action-oriented tools for responding when faced with a situation that could damage workplace culture. By arming employees with what to say and do when they witness workplace misconduct–and supporting them when they use these tools–workplace culture will be profoundly changed.

Ultimately, creating culture change in the workplace dominates our conversations around sexual harassment prevention because it’s effective. Unlike past efforts, it’s not another new tactic or tool, but an obvious goal that we now have the means and motivation to see through.