Seizing the Moment for Sustainable Change on Harassment in the Workplace

We stand at a moment now in which it is possible to make significant and sustainable change in our workplaces to stop harassment. And we can stop harassment based not only on sex, but on race, national origin, disability, religion, age, sexual orientation or gender identity. The revelations about sexual harassment have raised the visibility of harassment and the harms it causes. But this gives us the opportunity to make structural changes in our workplaces so that all forms of harassment are not tolerated. 

We have a road map from a report that I and my colleague, then-Commissioner and now Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic, issued in 2016. Here are three overarching recommendations from the report.

1. Change Workplace Culture

The bottom line is that the collective understanding in a workplace must be that it is not acceptable to engage in harassment. Research shows that leaders can create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.

First, leaders have to actually believe harassment is wrong. Beliefs and values are the foundation. Second, leaders have to articulate these values. Do not underestimate the power of words. On a regular basis, leaders must articulate what behavior is not acceptable in the workplace. Finally, workers have to believe their leaders are authentic. Leaders say a lot of things. They need to act in a way that workers believe they are authentic.

2. Hold People Accountable

The most important action that leaders can take is to hold people accountable who contravene the values and expectations the leaders have articulated. 

First, people who have been found, following an investigation, to have engaged in harassment must receive timely discipline, up to and including removal. When leaders impose weak sanctions in cases of egregious conduct, it sends a clear message that the leaders don’t really care about stopping bad behavior.

But proportionality is key. A “zero-tolerance policy” should mean there is zero tolerance for any form of harassing behavior, no matter how low-level. But it should not mean that every act of bad behavior gets the same discipline, including termination. That is not only an unfair system, it might also chill reporting, because workers often don’t want a co-worker to be fired – they just want the conduct to stop.

If a supervisor receives a report of harassment and dismisses it, or trivializes it, or blames the person coming forward – or if a supervisor sees harassment and ignores it — that supervisor must be held accountable.

The second group of people that must be held accountable are those responsible for responding to harassment. If a supervisor receives a report of harassment and dismisses it, or trivializes it, or blames the person coming forward – or if a supervisor sees harassment and ignores it — that supervisor must be held accountable. The same rule applies to HR personnel who receive reports of harassment.

Finally, anyone who retaliates against a person who has reported harassment must suffer consequences. In the surveys we reviewed for our report, most women – almost 70 percent -- never report harassment because they are afraid of retaliation. They aren’t wrong. The surveys also showed that over half of women who reported harassment experienced some form of retaliation – either professional or social. That must stop if harassment is to stop.

Holding people accountable will make workers feel it is worth reporting harassment (because it might actually stop) and safe to report harassment. That is the positive feedback loop we need – to replace the negative loop we have had for years.

3. Have the Right Policies, Procedures & Training

Policies, procedures and training will mean little if leadership and accountability are lacking. But with leadership and accountability, these are essential components to prevent harassment.

A policy should be short, clear and not heavy on the law. Workers need to know what type of conduct is not acceptable; how to report such conduct if it happens, what will happen after a report is made, and an assurance the person will not be retaliated against. That is what needs to be in a policy.

One needs a procedure to take in reports of harassment and investigate them. The most important element is that the system takes people seriously. That doesn’t mean a person’s complaint is automatically accepted as true. That’s what an investigation is for. But it means saying to the person: “Thank you for coming forward. If what you describe is happening, it is wrong and we will stop it. And here are the next steps that will happen.”

Finally, training is essential. The basic training is what we call in the report “compliance training.” That is, the training explains to workers the conduct they are expected to comply with when they walk through the doors of their workplace. The training is not about passing judgment and it is not about changing workers’ beliefs. It is about changing workers’ behavior in the workplace.

Respectful workplaces training does not focus on specific characteristics like race or sex, but rather on creating a general organizational culture of respect.

Other types of training can be helpful as well. Respectful workplaces training does not focus on specific characteristics like race or sex, but rather on creating a general organizational culture of respect. This training is skills-based – it teaches workers concrete skills that foster respectful interactions, such as how to give feedback when they experience disrespectful behavior and how to respond when they get such feedback. As one researcher told us, uncivil behavior can be a gateway drug to illegal harassment. So let’s stop uncivil behavior.

Another approach is bystander intervention training. This is also skills-based training that gives workers concrete options for stopping harassment. This may mean stopping the harassment in the moment, confronting the harasser afterwards, talking to someone else who has the power to do something, or simply helping the target of the harassment bring a complaint. 

With leadership, accountability, policies, procedures and training, we can create lasting structural changes in our workplaces that will stop harassment. Let’s do it. 

Chai Feldblum is a Commissioner at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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