How HR Can Really Decrease Sexual Harassment in Our Workplace

sexual harassment, work sexual harassment, workplace sexual harassment

In light of recent news about sexual harassment in the workplace, I don’t think we have to ask ourselves how often it really happens. It really happens. A lot. And so much of it is underreported by victims who fear backlash, it probably happens even more than we think.

How HR Can Really Decrease Sexual Harassment in Our Workplace 

According to a 2008 study by the Association of Women in Action, 54% of the respondents reported having experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment. One thing is for certain, sexual harassment in the workplace is real, it’s common and it’s time for business leaders and the public to address and call for change. First, let’s define it and add it up.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has an official definition of sexual harassment:

Sexual Harassment

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Charges Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (charges filed with EEOC)

FY 2013 – FY 2016

This table shows charge data for sex-based harassment allegations, including charges alleging sexual harassment. NOTE: This does not include charges filed with state or local Fair Employment Practices Agencies.

FY FY 2013 FY 2014 FY 2015 FY 2016
Receipts 12,379 12,146 12,573 12,860

Source: EEOC

Yes, you’re reading it right. Increases YoY since at least 2010. And these are only cases that are reported to the EEOC.

For some fascinating facts about workplace law and sexual harassment, listen to Workology Episode 100: How Prevalent is Sexual Harassment at Work & What We Can Do About It? with Kate Bischoff (@k8bischhrlaw)

So how can we really decrease sexual harassment in the workplace? The EEOC has raised its profile about sexual harassment, reporting the numbers noted above for transparency. Employers are also taking a harder look at their sexual harassment policies – and they should be doing so. If (and when) word gets around, especially in the news media, a single allegation can severely hurt a company’s bottom line.

The EEOC secures about $404 million dollars from employers each year. Employee lawsuits are expensive. An average out of court settlement is about $40,000. In addition, 10 percent of wrongful termination and discrimination cases result in a $1 million dollar settlement.

While “locker room talk” seems to have little impact on a former presidential candidate, now president (if you somehow missed that Billy Bush tape, it is discussed in the podcast linked above), sexual harassment allegations can be the ruin of a brand. Besides hard cash, the PR damage can take even the largest company down.

People really do “vote” with their dollars, meaning bad PR can result in lower earnings and fewer customers, as well as the decline in the number of qualified candidates applying for open jobs with a company based on reputation. I recently spoke with a woman who turned down a role at a media company because the man behind the “women’s media company” is a well-known misogynist and has several harassment lawsuits pending against him. It truly was a deal breaker for her.

And this is true for myself. I deleted the Uber app from my phone and only use Lyft when traveling because of Uber’s reputation and the way they treat women in their organization. I am exercising my right as a consumer not to feed a sick machine, and I believe a growing number of individuals are doing the same.

How Can HR Decrease Sexual Harassment at Work and In Society?

So what can companies, and your company, in particular, do to decrease sexual harassment in the workplace?

Train Staff

Every single person working for your company should have sexual harassment training, whether they are in a supervisory role, entry level, part-time…if they’re on the payroll, they should know what “hostile work environment” means, how to handle it should it happen (HR, stat), and how to avoid “casual” harassment. Casual harassment can be laughed off as a joke, but according to the EEOC, it costs the same amount of dollars. So no joke.

Audit HR Policies

What is your company’s policy on sexual harassment? If you can’t answer in two sentences or fewer, you have some work to do. The EEOC can help with the language needed to create policies around harassment and processes to follow should it happen.

Employee Focus Groups

You have the best built-in focus groups on your staff. Consider putting together a mix of management and employees from different departments, commit to open conversations, and talk it out. This can help you find out if your employees are clear on what to do in an incident of sexual harassment, define what sexual harassment is through conversation, and let their questions be your guide to creating policy. Just because you have sexual harassment 101 down doesn’t mean everyone on your company’s staff does.

If Bob in Accounting makes Julie “feel uncomfortable,” but he hasn’t spoken to her in a way that creates a hostile work environment, or in any sexual way, is this harassment? It isn’t.

If Sales Boss and Sales Admin Assistant have a work-related dinner that leads to other things that might not be consensual were he not the boss, is this harassment? It is.

Q&A can go a long way to building a bridge of communication with all employees.

Conduct an Employee Survey

Anonymously, of course, with the stipulation that if a survey response contains an allegation of harassment, HR must become involved. A survey, like a focus group, can give you a better understanding of what your employees think of your current policies and how to adapt your training for your audience.

Important: If you receive valid and executable recommendations from employees, carry them out. Include them in your policy. The EEOC dictates and defines what sexual harassment is, but that doesn’t mean someone on your staff may have a great idea to help avoid getting into hostile work environment territory.

Finally, Evaluate.

Run the numbers. Know your male to female ratios among positions, supervisors, managers, and departments. Men can be victims of sexual harassment, but statistics still show a much higher percentage of women being affected. It’s important to know the landscape at your company and how to change your recruiting efforts to create parity.

Push Back

Sexual harassment is happening because we are tolerating these behaviors. If you see sexual harassment among HR colleagues at a conference, out with friends, or witness these behaviors stand up and call it out. Take a stand and push back. Let them know these actions, behaviors, or words are not tolerated under any circumstance no matter how much money, power, or influence the sexual harasser has.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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