Although none of our clients have had a harassment situation as of yet, it is a concern for them.
All kinds of people in all walks of life have opinions about sexual harassment in the workplace. Several high-profile layoffs in the last few months have brought the conversation front and center. And if you’re cringing away from it, this article is for you.
As the leader of an executive team and the head of a company, you cannot afford discomfort around issues of company culture. Sexual harassment is potentially a huge part of that culture.
Whether women or men are the targets, sexual harassment has negative consequences for physical and mental health and career trajectories. Targets of sexually harassing behavior may experience a range of symptoms –from sleep problems, neck pain, and diminished self-esteem to depression and major stress disorders. Individuals who are harassed are also more likely to quit their jobs, which may in turn hurt their professional development and long-term earning potential. Sexual harassment negatively impacts workplace cultures as well. Research shows that workplace harassment undermines employee morale and can cause productivity to decline.
How Can You Tell?
Due to fear of reprisal, most sexual harassment isn’t reported. Often, reported harassing behaviors sound petty to those hearing of the harassment – bad jokes, inappropriate gifts, and inappropriate touch are dismissed as social awkwardness or misjudging someone’s sense of humor. This can lead to executives excusing smaller behaviors over time and missing developing patterns. Look for disproportionately low retention rates in departments and patterns of other complaints about individuals (especially those who supervise others). Often, a harasser is someone who gets high amounts of negative feedback from those he or she supervises, but positive feedback from his or her superiors.
What is Harassment Anyway?
It is not uncommon for executives and business leaders to shy away from conversations about sexual harassment by exclaiming that everything is harassment these days. Isn’t it just about some people being more sensitive than others? Absolutely not. Sexual harassment has two legal definitions.
- Quid pro quo harassment occurs when sexual demands are made (or threatened) as a basis for employment-related decisions such as promotion or firing.
- Hostile environment harassment occurs when sexual conduct or materials in the workplace unreasonably interfere with a person’s ability to perform her or his job, or when they create a hostile, intimidating or offensive working environment.
How Can I Prevent It?
Once sexual harassment has been embedded in your company’s culture, it is difficult to fix. Often, the only true fix is to replace those who actively harass, regardless of their monetary value. The standards of behavior shouldn’t be different for support staff and the Vice President of Sales.
- Consistently perform exit interviews and watch for patterns between departments.
- Be wary of employees who treat gendered groups differently than others in professional settings, even if it is as casual as a joke, silly gift, or changing language.
- Watch out for leaders who seek out physical traits in employees for specific positions with no physical job requirements, like dismissing candidates considered less attractive for no professional reason.
The key to protecting your employees and your business from sexual harassment is the same as for shaping a strong, positive company culture. Listen and pay attention. When 2 or 3 members of a department quit at the same time, listen to them directly. Don’t take the supervisor’s word for why they left. When assessing leader performance, be sure to check in with your human resources team. And most importantly, switch the burden of belief to the accuser. It is incredibly difficult to report sexual harassment in the workplace. Fear often keeps people silent until they after they leave a job. The more willing you are to hear, the more you will learn.