Harassment May be Near an Inflection Point — But Still Much Work to Do

"It’s entirely possible that incidents of sexual harassment will increase — harassers may now believe they can act without consequences. At the same time, victims now may be more fearful of reporting the harassment because of retaliation, and because they may feel their report will not be taken seriously or addressed. So, it’s even more important for employers to be proactive about sexual harassment in the workplace and be clear that it’s not acceptable."

90% of people who are harassed at work don’t file complaints.

That’s what Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality for the National Women’s Law Center, told the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania last month. The article essentially asked whether, after a series high-profile instances of alleged sexual harassment in 2016—including in the presidential campaign—we could be reaching an inflection point.

It’s a question worth asking, especially because we know that harassment in the workplace, especially including sexual harassment, remains a pernicious problem. The Wharton article theorized that the increased attention over the past year actually might lead to a new era of awareness—but also to more harassment.

Simultaneously, there’s also the simple matter of a new administration in Washington, with new rules and new regulators. While we don’t have a crystal ball, it seems possible that those changes could halt or even curtail the progress that has been made to address harassment in the workplace in the past couple of decades.

Training Course: Workplace Harassment Seventh-Generation Course

The Right Goals, but Persistent Problems

We do see rays of hope—as organizations have over the years learned (and apparently internalized) some key lessons that we don’t think they’ll abandon.

Only 7% of organizations...trained board members on harassment issues (compared with 76% who train employees)

While organizations are still very (and rightly) focused on complying with the law, they’re particularly concentrated on using training to create a culture of ethics and respect, according to NAVEX Global’s 2016 Ethics & Compliance Training Benchmark Report. That’s a hopeful sign — it means efforts to prevent workplace harassment (in concept, at least) are motivated by more than checking a box and keeping up with laws and enforcement. And we don’t expect that to change.

But the right goals won’t get you anywhere without effective execution. Only seven percent of organizations in the above survey said they trained board members on harassment issues (compared with 76 percent who train employees). And an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report on sexual harassment last summer found that, while overall harassment filings to the EEOC have fallen in recent years, 90 percent of people who are harassed at work don’t file complaints.

What Your Organization Can Do to Address Harassment

There’s some good resources and advice out there, and it appears that recent headlines have at least prompted some discussion. This Harvard Business Review article provides great insights into what your employees consider when deciding to make a report; understanding what motivates employees to speak up or stay quiet, and what you can do to help them determine how best to respond to unwelcome, offensive conduct is vital if your organization plans to truly stands behind its commitment to a harassment-free workplace. And of course strong, innovative and up-to-date training remains essential; great training helps your employees become more sensitized, more thoughtful about what they say and do, and more willing to help protect the culture you have worked so hard to create.

Harassment is fundamentally a human issue, and combatting it goes beyond implementing the right policies.

Organizations should regularly audit their own training and compliance programs, responding with a “yes” or “no” to each of the lines below.

  1. I have deployed a new workplace harassment training course in the last two years

  2. I am training all my employees—managers and employees

  3. There is content in the course that is just for managers, and it will help them become better leaders

  4. The scenarios in my course are current and realistic and will resonate with my employees

  5. The course I deploy is so great, even I want to watch it

  6. I am confident that my senior leaders will think the course is a good use of employee time

  7. I am certain that my employees will find this training engaging, informative and thought provoking

  8. My training helps reassure victims that they will be protected when they file a report

  9. My organization stands behind (and holds everyone accountable to) its policy prohibiting retaliation

Did you answer “no” to any of these statements? If so, you might want to rethink your organization’s training and broader program for addressing and preventing workplace harassment—to make sure you’re creating a strong culture and complying with the law. As Raghu of the National Women’s Law Center told Wharton, “Law is important, but it can only go so far. What is really going to change things is a cultural shift.”

Training Course: Workplace Harassment Seventh-Generation Course

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