How to prevent workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment may be a trending topic, but it’s an evergreen issue for employers. Here’s how to establish a solid harassment prevention policy for your organization.

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a white-hot topic right now. Employers, including community banks, can minimize occurrences by adhering to “five core principles” outlined in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) “Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment.” (See sidebar.)

After numerous high-profile allegations, the federal agency in November 2017 published several best practices identified by its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. The most critical component: Employers should ensure they have committed and engaged leaders who set the tone from the top. “The cornerstone of a successful harassment prevention strategy is the consistent and demonstrated commitment of senior leaders to create and maintain a culture in which harassment is not tolerated,” the agency writes.

The guidance includes checklists based on these principles to assist employers in preventing and responding to workplace harassment. While the practices are not required by the EEOC, they may enhance employers’ compliance efforts, according to the agency.

In the current environment of numerous, highly visible claims against high-powered people, more claims of sexual harassment in the workplace are likely, says Karen Reinhold, co-chair of law firm Hopkins & Carley’s employment law practice in San Jose, Calif. “It’s absolutely imperative that employers have policies that detail what is and is not permitted,” she says.

Employers should develop procedures that make it easy for employees to report any instances of sexual harassment, Reinhold says. Some companies use a 1-800 reporting number or set up a contract in order to ensure employees feel free to report.

Damage control
In the event of a claim, the main focus is a thorough and fair investigation and effective remedial action, Reinhold says. An employer’s failure to have a robust sexual harassment policy creates a substantial legal risk for the company. However, employers can reap benefits if they practice good governance. “A good sexual harassment policy and effective enforcement of that policy not only reduces legal risk, it helps create a work environment in which all employees feel valued and are more likely to be productive and satisfied with their employment—resulting in a greater ability to retain and recruit employees,” says Reinhold.

Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at research and advisory company Gartner in Arlington, Va., says the fundamental problem with the “current playbook” that HR uses to deal with sexual harassment is that it’s about 30 years old—“and it simply will not work.”

“The company starts by waiting for the employee to make a complaint, then HR takes time to investigate, and often the company keeps the matter as private as possible with the goal of reaching a financial settlement between the harasser and the accuser,” Kropp says. “Unfortunately, the results are terrible with this approach: 75 percent of those who experience harassment don’t report it, 73 percent downplay the significance of the assault and 70 percent try to ignore, forget or simply endure the behavior.”

“A good sexual harassment policy … not only reduces legal risk, it helps create a work environment in which all employees feel valued and are more likely to be productive and satisfied with their employment.”
—Karen Reinhold, Hopkins & Carley

Employers need to shift to a more active listening approach, one that includes monitoring social media, he says. For example, the #metoo campaign has enabled millions of victims to publicly say they were harassed, and employers can review those feeds and determine if any of their employees are among them.

Zero tolerance
Employers should reinforce a zero-tolerance harassment policy by communicating exactly what will happen to harassers—and then follow through on that, no matter the accused’s title, Kropp says. While many companies will say they have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, fewer follow through on their statements when harassment occurs. Instead, compromises are made, exceptions are created and other conditions emerge that protect the harasser from termination.

“A common refrain heard from harassers is that they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong—hence the explanation for why they shouldn’t be punished,” Kropp says. “To break through this fog, companies need to explicitly tell employees what will happen if they commit any form of harassment; there can be no doubt as to the outcome if [this] behavior occurs.”

To ensure employees are fully aware that the company takes workplace harassment seriously, the company needs to communicate to the entire organization when harassment has occurred and what has happened to the harasser, Kropp says. Without this transparency, companies will not achieve changes to behavior.

Employers should also embed fair treatment into HR workflows, rather than just into communications, he says. Most employees—and almost all harassers—will simply not change their behavior based on being told to do so by senior leaders or HR. Indeed, Gartner research shows that this type of approach has a roughly 1 percent impact on the company’s ability to change its culture. Instead, companies must ensure that all employees are treated fairly through the recruiting, promotion and rewards processes.

“Companies need to explicitly tell employees what will happen if they commit any form of harassment.”
—Brian Kropp, Gartner

“By ensuring that there is process fairness along all of these dimensions, companies will shift their culture toward a [fairer] one,” Kropp says. “Without shifting workflows, companies will continue to have an environment where bias is tolerated and contribute to a sense that harassment will be tolerated.”

Up to this point, many organizations have offered cursory compliance training, where employees click through PowerPoint presentations, enabling employers to then “check that box,” says Lorrie Lykins, managing editor and vice president of research at the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).

“With the EEOC’s ‘Promising Practice,’ this needs to be taken far beyond ‘check the box,’” says Lykins, who is based in New York City. “It needs to be about changing the culture. In many ways, there just needs to be a shift in dimensions about what the conversation is even all about.”

A holistic view
While HR typically develops policies based on research backed by empirical data and case studies, there are no readily available case studies on sexual harassment “because no company wants to tell that story,” Lykins says. While it’s positive that more victims are now coming forward, it’s imperative that organizations take a holistic view of the issue, with particular emphasis on how leaders set the tone in conversations and model appropriate behaviors.

Lykins also believes that at times it can be challenging to delineate which behaviors cross the line. What people might find offensive in one industry may be standard operating procedure in another, she says, adding that even within industries, some offenses can feel subjective. “It really comes down [to] leadership having explicit conversations within the workplace about calling out specific behaviors,” she says. “It can be awkward and uncomfortable, but someone has to do it.”

The rise of sexual harassment allegations is coming at a point in time where there’s already a transformation occurring in the marketplace—in technology, in demographics and in the rise of the gig economy, Lykins says. “Company leaders are feeling out of control with the pace of change, and now they’re having to deal with epic culture change with this white-hot issue,” she says. “If this issue is not handled appropriately, it could really weaken the culture of an organization. That will make it lose talent, particularly young talent that everyone is fighting over—and not just women, but men, too.”

The EEOC’s 5 Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment

  • Committed and engaged leadership
  • Consistent and demonstrated accountability
  • Strong and comprehensive harassment policies
  • Trusted and accessible complaint procedures
  • Regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a writer in California.