Moving Beyond the Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment
For years, companies have been taking steps to address behaviors that meet the legal definition of sexual harassment in the workplace. They implemented training filled with examples from court cases, policies that repeat legal standards, and consequences for behavior that violated these rules. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of HR leaders, training and development professionals, and committed supervisors and managers, these efforts have not stemmed the tide of sexual harassment charges, lawsuits, and settlements around the country.
It seems that every week brings a new media story about some high-profile politicians, media personalities, or business executives tied to a sexual harassment accusation. And these are just the stories that make the news. Every day, in cities large and small across the country, instances of different types of sexual harassment are occurring—sometimes reported, often not.
Of the more than 76,000 charges employees filed with the EEOC in 2018, harassment charges represented more than a third–and close to half of these involved sexual harassment.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Most employees can identify examples of sexual harassment. Generally speaking, the legal definition of sexual harassment is any conduct of a sexual nature that “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” This may include such behaviors as:
- Verbal harassment: making or using derogatory comments, slurs, and jokes
- Verbal sexual advances or propositions
- Verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic verbal commentaries about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual, suggestive or obscene letters, notes or invitations
- Demeaning comments about customers or coworkers of a sexual nature
- Sexually explicit language and/or jokes
- Any type of sexual contact in order to remain employed
- Leering, making sexual gestures, displaying of suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters
- Touching, assault, impeding or blocking movements
- Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors
- Making or threatening reprisals after a negative response to sexual advances
So, when asking what is harassment, the answer is pretty straightforward. Or it should be. And yet we continue to see examples of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Most employees understand what sexual harassment is–particularly in its most egregious forms. They know it’s wrong. They know this type of behavior has no place in the workplace or in our culture. Yet it remains pervasive. As the saying goes: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”
Something needs to change.
Training managers and employees on the legal definition of sexual harassment, the job-related consequences of policy violations, and the legal ramifications for both the organization and those who engage in harassment is not driving the point home. We need to see a shift in the approach taken to address any form of harassment in the workplace. We need to work at building cultures of inclusion and respect, enlisting employees at all levels in the process. We need to pivot from a focus on avoiding legal exposure to a focus on creating a positive work environment. We need to stop focusing on what employees shouldn’t do, and instead focus on what they should do to create a workplace that is hostile to harassment.
Policies and training don’t prevent sexual harassment. People do.
Building a Team of Bystanders To Head Off Workplace Harassment
One way that companies are coming together to address the issue of workplace harassment is by enlisting employees as trained bystanders who are empowered to step in and take action if they observe harassing behaviors. This may mean anything from creating a distraction to interrupt the behavior, to directly intervening, to checking in with the person targeted after the fact, to reporting the situation to HR. There is no one “right” way to speak up or get involved, and employees may feel more or less comfortable taking a particular action depending on the situation. Arming employees with alternatives, resources, and talking points can help them to find the approach that feels right for them while building a community of advocates for a respectful work environment.
We know the legal definition of sexual harassment. Now, we need to do something about it—together.