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The problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is certainly not new. But the #MeToo movement has helped shine a spotlight on this disturbing and growing trend. Since the launch of the hashtag following the accusations against Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, numerous explosive sexual harassment allegations have followed affecting every profession. Allegations about media personalities, politicians, academic leaders, and others across technology, gaming, finance, sports, hospitality, healthcare, non-profits, and many other industries have brought a new awareness to HR that no matter how much an employee may be a superstar, their bad behavior can no longer be ignored.
Yet, there are many victims who suffer in silence and choose not to report incidents because they are ashamed or in denial about what’s happening. Many fear retaliation (according to 2018 EEOC data, 75% of employees who report harassment experience retaliation).
The high cost of sexual harassment to employers
HR should consider the #MeToo movement a wake-up call. Job #1 is to ensure the safety of your employees, but also to provide a normal, functional place for them to work free of fear. You also want to protect your company’s brand and reputation and future—sexual harassment claims can cost anywhere from $100,000 to millions of dollars per incident. That’s not counting reputational costs from bad press and word of mouth. Then there’s the opportunity costs that can result in a loss of business. Consider, too, how claims can hinder your ability to attract new talent.
Sexual harassment and other uncivil behavior also dramatically affect workplace productivity – and that’s bad for your business. In a poll of 800 managers and employers across 17 industries, authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that 48% intentionally decreased their work effort. Another 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work, and 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers. For more on workplace civility costs and cures, see our ebook.
HR ’s new playbook for combatting sexual harassment
In today’s world, damage to your organization from sexual harassment incidents can quickly escalate when victims share their stories on social media. That’s why the old HR playbook on sexual harassment no longer works. Formerly, it looked like this: employees made a complaint; HR took time to investigate; the matter generally stayed private until it could be resolved (or most often, swept under the rug). Accusers often ended up being the ones penalized, while perpetrators got little more than a slap on the wrist. Now, every single sexual harassment claim must be quickly investigated, whether it involves senior management, direct reports, clients, or vendors.
Understand the full scope of the problem
A good place to start is to educate yourself about what constitutes sexual harassment. Sexual harassment isn’t something just higher-ups do. A survey by The Harris Poll found that 60% of employees said a co-worker or peer harassed them, while just one-third cited a direct manager or supervisor. And, while sexual harassment is overt, it’s sometimes subtle. It also comes in many forms. Beverly Engel, a renowned psychotherapist and author of 20 books, including I’m Saying No!: Standing Up Against Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Pressure, gives a breakdown of different types of sexual harassment:
- Inappropriate touching
- Sexual jokes
- Lewd comments or gestures
- Exposing body parts
- Showing graphic images
- Unwelcome sexual emails, texts, or calls
- Overt requests for sex
- Sexual bribery
- Being offered a benefit for a sexual favor
- Being denied a promotion or raise because you didn’t cooperate
Set clear standards for workplace behavior
You can help prevent sexual harassment in your workplace by creating a Code of Conduct or Employee Handbook that is very clear about the standards expected from employees. Stress that retaliation against those who report incidents is not tolerated. A clear Code of Conduct replaces the tendency for employees to rely on their own sense of what’s appropriate or inappropriate.
To supplement, you should also create an anti-harassment policy that eliminates any doubt employees may have about what constitutes harassment. Be specific. For example, everyone has different perceptions of personal space and touching. List different kinds of sexual misconduct with examples to clarify, for example, “giving your co-worker an unsolicited back rub.” When it comes to reporting, list procedures step-by-step. Offer multiple, unrelated ways victims can report harassment or retaliation (If the boss is the harasser, you want to give victims an alternative go-to.). Or, consider setting up a neutral third-party to receive complaints, for example a hot line. Ensure that there is follow-up of all complaints.
Screen for bad-behaviors during the hiring process
You can eliminate a lot of potential for sexual harassment and civility at the hiring stage. Use behavioral interviewing techniques to ask questions about how a candidate overcame obstacles or deals with conflict. Then assess how the candidate thinks in situations that involve stress, challenges, and other people. Asking them how they felt over a win or a loss can help you determine if they are aware of their own feelings, how they managed their emotions and whether they were aware of the impact on others. Group interviews can also reveal whether a candidate has trouble getting along with others.
Reference-checking is very effective at informing out about a candidate’s past performance and behavior in their former workplaces. SkillSurvey Reference® sends a candidate’s references an online link where they rate the candidate on about 25 questions that quickly assesses the candidate’s soft skills, e.g. how they treat co-workers. (One of the most telling questions is asking references how the candidate treats other people – including others of different backgrounds, beliefs and gender.). They’re assured that all their feedback – including written comments – remain strictly confidential. The more references you can reach, the better and online reference checking can help you reach more easily. SkillSurvey recommends a combination of 5 references from previous managers or supervisors and co-workers or peers., and we’ve found that feedback from co-workers tends to include more comments about soft skills. This guarantee of confidentiality prompts at least 85% of references to complete the survey and offer candid input – including comments on strengths, and areas where a candidate could improve.
Once you have policies in place, it’s important to follow up with training. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a number of resources to members, including tools and samples to leverage.
Don’t let sexual harassment in the workplace demoralize and harm your employees as well as damage your company. Take control with smart strategies that add teeth to your policies, prevent harassers from joining your organization, and educate employees with the most effective training. Learn more about and hear from experts in this webinar to protect your organization from sexual harassment.