A sexual harassment policy is not enough. How can we make meaningful progress towards ending sexual harassment?

For years most employers have had a basic sexual harassment policy that goes something like: sexual harassment is bad, and we don’t allow it. Have these policies helped to to reduce sexual harassment? NOPE!

For many employers these policies were adopted in the hopes of avoiding liability in sexual harassment lawsuits, but not for the purpose of eliminating sexual harassment…and that is the problem. Employers cannot simply add a few paragraphs to their employee handbook and call it good, essentially declaring sexual harassment as an inevitable problem in every workplace. But that is NOT TRUE. Sexual harassment is not inevitable, it is preventable. And it is time for actions, not just words.

What are a few things that Forbes has identified that employers should be doing?

  1. The message needs to come from the very top. That means the CEO, not managers, not human resources. The CEO. The message is important, and it needs to come from the most powerful person in the company. It needs to be said clearly, and it needs to be said often—zero tolerance for sexual harassment. If the CEO doesn’t believe in a zero tolerance policy or has their own history of harassment, there is a simple solution for that—get a new CEO.

  2. Evaluate managers on complaints of sexual harassment. Performance evaluations drive promotions and compensation. Any person in an organization who supervises other employees should be evaluated on both whether there are complaints of sexual harassment within their group and on how they effectively deal with those complaints. Enforcement of a company’s sexual harassment policy needs to be a priority and linking compensation to that is a good way to start.

  3. Make the reporting process known and safe. Every employee in a company should know how to report sexual harassment. Every employee should know they will not be retaliated against. This means that when retaliation happens the person who retaliated is fired. Employees will not report sexual harassment if they see their co-workers who have reported being retaliated against without consequence.

Researchers in 2017 found that the typical employer approach of including language in the employee handbook and a training by human resources not only doesn’t help, but may make things worse. Many sexual harassment training programs portray men as natural sexual harassers and women as victims. These portrayals may make women feel less empowered to report sexual harassment. Also, these types of training programs have the least impact on men who are likely to harass. This research shows the bystander training and training on civility in the workplace are more effective than traditional sexual harassment training. This training helps employees to act when they witness harassment not just when they are being subjected to harassment. It also helps employees learn what to do in the workplace instead of just what they should not be doing.

What is one critically important step that companies can take to reduce sexual harassment? Put women in leadership and key positions! Putting women in leadership positions helps change the culture of a workplace and makes it more likely that sexual harassment policies will actually be enforced and that women will feel empowered to report sexual harassment. There has recently been some exciting news on this issue. General Motors has just announced that for the first time in its history there will be more women on the Board of Directors than men. GM is not alone. Other Fortune 500 companies have boards with a majority made up of women including Viacom, Bed Bath and Beyond, CBS, Omnicorp and Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores. Hopefully, with an increase in women in leadership positions, we will start to see a decrease in sexual harassment.

The first step to ending sexual harassment is accepting that it is not an inevitable part of any workplace. It is preventable. Employers are responsible for preventing sexual harassment. Sexual harassment not only hurts the victim, it hurts the company as a whole.

If you have been subjected to sexual harassment and would like to know if a sexual harassment attorney can help you, please call us at (319) 826-2250 for a confidential and free consultation.