7 Strategies for Preventing Sexual Harassment at Work
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 at work.
While no organization wants to believe that sexual harassment at work is an issue in their workplace, the sad reality is that sexual harassment is widely prevalent today. 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 harassment training that is being provided is doing more harm than good.
There is good news, though. By taking a different approach to addressing sexual harassment, employers can effectively diminish the potential for harassment and ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace for all. Here are seven strategies to prevent sexual harassment at work.
7 Strategies for Preventing Sexual Harassment at Work
1. Make it Crystal Clear that Sexual Harassment Prevention is a Company Priority
If there’s anything positive to come out of the #MeToo movement and the myriad of sexual harassment cases that have come to light in recent years, it’s growing awareness of the need to be even more proactive in taking steps to educate and inform staff about the 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 prevent sexual harassment at work, research shows that communications should not be tepid in tone; rather, they should include strong, unequivocal statements that preventing 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 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.
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.
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 sexual harassment prevention solution, 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 preventing 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. Not all employees, of course, 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.
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; further, those employees who may commit harm may feel emboldened to continue. Thus, it is critical that employers respond promptly to reports of harassment, 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.