According to Chai Feldblum, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) commissioner, in a recent talk with HR and compliance professionals, employers underestimate both the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the extent of the damages it brings on company culture.
For HR and compliance professionals looking to shore up their sexual harassment prevention strategies, the following are three of the most common sexual harassment misconceptions Feldblum says companies hold today.
1. Sexual harassment prevention training is about changing behaviors, not beliefs.
Just as we’ve seen increased support for efforts to change workplace culture around sexual harassment, we’ve also observed a backlash amongst a not-insignificant proportion of the population who believe such efforts have gone too far.
Simultaneously improving sexual harassment prevention and accommodating such viewpoints appears to be an impossible task.
It is, however, a false choice.
”You can go home and believe whatever you want to believe,” she said. “Why can’t I tell Susan that she looks sexy in that dress? My wife loves it when I say it? Go home, say it to your wife… but when you walk into the doors of this workplace, this is the behavior we expect.”
Sexual harassment prevention isn’t designed to change views. In deciding how to prevent harassment in the workplace, employers should focus on how to drive down incidents of harassment by helping an entire culture identify and adequately respond to such incidents. As such, so long as employees’ actions reflect an understanding of sexual harassment prevention principals, consider your job done.
2. Sexual harassment prevention training is a “capstone,” not a cure-all.
Better understanding the impact of sexual harassment on your organization helps clarify the issues true magnitude. For organizations to make such harassment a thing of the past, a number of steps must be made in policy, procedures, communication, and training.
Compliance training has historically been among the first responses businesses employ to address issues of harassment and inclusion. And while the sophistication of interactive training has grown in leaps and bounds over previous years, training alone can’t carry the full weight of a prevention program, according to Feldblum.
“Once you have leadership, accountability, policies, and procedures,” Feldblum said, “Then training is your capstone.”
Once an entire organization feels confident that they know how to identify and respond to harassment incidents—and they know their organization will not retaliate against them—you form a culture altogether intolerant of this damaging occurrence.
“Seventy percent of people who experience harassment don’t even talk about it,” she said. “If they’ve seen someone else retaliated against, why would they?”
A number of elements need to be in place for employees to enjoy this confidence.
Employees must know how to report sexual harassment at work. First, there must be multiple methods to report harassment, she said. Think in-person reporting methods; an HR point-person; anonymous hotlines. And for reporting to be meaningful, there needs to be accountability in the enforcement of both anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies.
3. Sexual harassment litigation costs are high, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg.
Sexual harassment’s true cost to organizations can be divided into two categories: direct and indirect.
Direct expenses essentially account for legal costs due to lawsuits or regulatory action. Indirect costs, meanwhile, account for all else, including absenteeism, lower productivity, and greater turnover, according to Feldblum.
The impact of sexual harassment on businesses goes beyond legal costs or fines. Most organizations focused on direct costs, where the high price of potential litigation represents one unforeseen risk amongst many. According to David Yamada, the director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University, the potential for such litigation is “the cost of doing business.”
In a study on employee litigation, Hiscox researchers calculated that the average U.S. business faced an 11.7 percent chance of receiving an EEOC employment charge during 2014. A similar study found that, for small and mid-size business, 19 percent of closed claims costs about $125,000 per claim, for both settlement and defense costs.
And despite the not-insignificant impact of direct costs, focusing on them exclusively is short-sighted, said Feldblum. Indirect costs “Way outweigh—far outweigh—the potential legal cost,” she said.
Indirect costs are not only higher because they account for a wider variety of damages, they also include the impact of sexual harassment incidents that have gone unreported. Approximately three-fourths of those who experience harassment never bring up the incident to a supervisor, manager, or union representative.
Once the greater volume of incidents is accounted for, the sum total of various damages arising from such incidents begins to take shape. Health complications due to harassment, for instance, are linked to numerous psychological conditions, as are chronic physiological issues like heart disease and sleep disorders. What’s more, research has linked merely witnessing a harassment incident to poorer mental and physical health outcomes as well.
These incidents have been found to have profound impacts on workplace culture; absenteeism rises, productivity falls, and turnover increases. Research has shown that men and women experience diminished well-being in environments they believe to be hostile to women.
The above misunderstandings suggest an overall underestimation of sexual harassment’s impact. That such misunderstandings persist while cultural and political forces have greatly raised awareness of their danger appears to show this change will take longer than many have hoped.