In 2018, over 13,000 sex-based harassment claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This number doesn’t include charges filed with state and local agencies or situations where employees went directly to an attorney. And many employees who are victims of sexual harassment or are affected by it never report the incidents at all.
Victims and witnesses of harassment often refrain from reporting because the harasser has the power to retaliate or because the organization has not set up adequate channels for reporting. In other cases, victims report the harassment, but nothing is done about it. The harassment is excused, and the complaints are rebuffed. Word gets around that the organization tolerates harassment, and people stop bothering to report it. They either keep quiet, file charges with a governmental agency, or call an attorney.
None of these outcomes is good for employers or for the people they employ. If the case ends up in court, harassment can cost employers hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more!), especially if harassment is pervasive in the company culture. And when harassment continues unabated, victims suffer physically and psychologically, and often see their careers take a wrong turn.
It goes without saying that the workplace should be a safe and secure place, and it’s the employer’s responsibility to make it that way. No one can prevent all harassment from happening, but employers can and should do everything in their power to prevent harassment and appropriately respond when it occurs. This starts by having a solid harassment policy and complaint procedure that all employees can easily understand and access. Employers should establish multiple options for reporting, and ensure that they investigate allegations promptly and thoroughly, taking appropriate steps to discipline harassers.
Training employees on what constitutes harassment and how to respond to it is also recommended – while written policies and procedures are essential, employees will have a deeper understanding if they are offered the information in other formats as well, such as live training with visuals, examples, and time for questions and answers.
The EEOC recommends these additional preventive measures:
- Make an organizational commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respect—and establish policies and procedures to hold people accountable to that commitment.
- Empower those who are responsible for responding to allegations of harassment and preventing harassment from occurring.
- Establish a sense of urgency and seriousness about prevention by spending appropriate amounts of time and money on training or other prevention and response activities.
- Survey employees on whether they’re currently being harassed or know of harassment taking place.
- Avoid rewarding managers for minimum complaints on their team, as doing so could incentivize the suppression of reporting.
- Protect people from retaliation.
- Assess risk factors.
- Assess preventative measures already in place to ensure they are effective.
- Clarify what behavior is prohibited.
- Use discipline proportional to the offense (sexual assault and an offhand remark shouldn’t necessarily have the same consequence).
For any of these measures to work, employees need to know that if they report harassment, their report will be taken seriously, they’ll be protected from retaliation, and the harassment will stop. In short, they need to trust their employer. Consequently, anything an employer does to foster distrust will make anti-harassment measures much less effective. When it comes to preventing harassment, employers cannot say one thing and do another. Honesty and accountability are key. Trust can take time to build, but it can be lost in a moment.