Between Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Fox Network and now Fidelity Investment, it seems that the media consistently is reporting that sexual harassment in the workplace is not only still happening, but is pretty rampant, at least in some sectors. Interestingly, the “victims” of harassment still include people (primarily women) who have independently achieved a fair measure of power and authority; who, some might think, are in a better position to call out their harassers and put an end to this ridiculous behavior.
So, why is it that harassment continues in the workplace? These situations break down in roughly three categories as follows:
- Some people still don’t understand. These people fall into two major groups. The first is the Harvey Weinsteins of the world who possess such perceived authority or power that two things occur. One is that their egos get so out of control that they think rules don’t apply to them. The other problem with these harassers is that generally they are such key figures in an organization that others are actually willing to overlook the misconduct because of fear of the effect on the organization. The second group is the workers who kind of know better, but cross the line. This group can be further divided into those whose jokes and comments were okay at one point, but became offensive. The other subsection is the worker who actually has romantic feelings for another co-worker and pursues that person inappropriately.
- People are still afraid to complain about harassment. Whether resulting from the disparity in perceived power or the fear that they won’t be believed, employees are often still reluctant to formally complain of harassment. This is exacerbated when an employee has a widespread reputation for acting inappropriately but doesn’t seem to suffer negative consequences for the behavior.
- Employers don’t know how to handle complaints. In all fairness, most employers want to do the right thing and protect their employees, but just aren’t sure what to do. Part of this is due to the fact that most anti-harassment policies are written to prohibit behavior that is less serious than what would meet the legal definition of harassment. Policies are intentionally written that way to ensure that workers stay well away from the line where they put their employer in jeopardy of legal liability for sexual harassment. Nevertheless, employers don’t want to create such a rigid workplace that they’re disciplining everyone or instilling such concern among staff that people are afraid to be themselves (this is not the same as the sometimes unenlightened remarks that sexual harassment laws have made workplaces no fun anymore).
It’s clearly not enough to identify the problem since the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has been discussed by employers and addressed by courts for years. Rather, employers have to be unafraid to address it. That means training for all staff every year and zero tolerance for harassing behavior by supervisors, managers and those in perceived positions of authority. After all, even when no supervisor/subordinate relationship exists, if the harasser is perceived to have more authority or “value” in the organization, then the victim is often reluctant to complain.
Supervisors have to feel comfortable confronting employees who are getting close to the line of harassment policy violations to avoid more serious problems and employees have to feel comfortable bringing concerns to their supervisors and managers. Why is it that employees who are chronically five minutes late for work get more counseling and administrative attention than the employee who continues to stare at women’s chests and make inappropriate remarks?
Employers can use this recent media focus on sexual harassment as a springboard to training and discussions in their workplace on the subject. As we’ve seen through the media recently, unaddressed harassment issues can devastate an entire organization.