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How We Can Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Women, for the most part, just want sexual harassment to stop when it happens. But, as Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times reports, women (and it is mostly women who are harassed) rarely report sexual harassment for good reasons: fear of retaliation that can take the form of hostility from supervisors, bad references, or loss of opportunity when labeled as a “troublemaker.”  This is not a small problem for women.  Miller reports that an analysis of fifty-five surveys shows that close to 50 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, but only one-fourth to one-third of people who have been harassed report it to a supervisor or a union representative.  Only 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint.

Miller notes that official harassment policies and grievance procedures are often designed primarily to protect the organization from lawsuits—not to protect the employees.  Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, and Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, are both at the center of high profile cases where women who reported sexual harassment were not protected by their companies.

Noam Scheiber of the New York Times also explains that anonymous hotlines are ineffective, another example of how grievance procedures that should protect employees do not.  Scheiber describes several instances where anonymous hotlines were actually used to suppress allegations of sexual harassment rather than dealing with them.  These hotlines often exist in obscurity to insulate the organization from legal liability, and employees never know they exist. This was found to be the case at Fox News when the O’Reilly case recently came to light.

Claire Cain Miller points out that it is not policies, HR departments or training sessions that prevent sexual harassment—it is an organizational culture where, top down, sexual harassment is really not tolerated.  Miller offers some steps that organizations can take, drawn from recommendations by commissions and researchers, to ensure that employees are protected and can safely report sexual harassment:

  • Authorize dozens of employees throughout the organization to receive complaints
  • Hire an ombudsman
  • Promote more women to positions of power
  • Train people in how to be civil and how to speak up as bystanders—and be sure that senior managers attend the trainings
  • Put in proportional consequences for offenses so that low-grade instances can be handled with conversations rather than firing

Bryce Covert adds that we are all losing when sexual harassment is hidden and does not come to light.  For this reason, he adds this additional recommendation to the list of changes needed to prevent and stop sexual harassment:

  • Eliminate arbitration clauses in contracts, which almost always favor employers, and eliminate nondisclosure agreements when settlements are made

Sexual harassment will continue to be pervasive unless organizations start to really care about protecting their employees.  We must all continue to speak out in whatever forums we have available to us to insist on workplaces that are free of sexual harassment and other demeaning behavior.

 

Photo courtesy of Tony Webster. CC by-sa 2.0

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