Despite the #MeToo movement bringing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront of the public consciousness in the US and around the world, a recent survey from the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence finds that most American workers don’t see their employer taking new action to prevent or stop it. The association gives an overview of the survey at Phys.org:
Only 10 percent of U.S. workers said their employer has added more training or resources related to sexual harassment since the recent increased media and public attention on this serious workplace problem. Just 8 percent said their employer implemented a more stringent policy related to sexual harassment, and only 7 percent reported that their employer hosted an all-staff meeting or town hall to discuss sexual harassment.
Research has shown training to recognize and report sexual harassment isn’t enough to change employee behavior or a workplace culture where harassment is more likely to occur. Instead, psychologists recommend a comprehensive approach that incorporates fair policies that are clearly communicated, ongoing training, leadership support of a civil and respectful culture, and the hiring and promotion of women into senior leadership roles.
It is certainly easy for companies to fall back on training as a solution when their main concern is mitigating liability. However, sexual harassment training is arguably better than no response at all; at the very least, it acknowledges that sexual harassment exists and signals to employees that the organization does not intend to simply sweep it under the rug. Without that acknowledgment from an organization and its leaders, by comparison, employee morale and confidence in the organization’s ability or willingness to handle harassment can suffer greatly. This can send organizations into a self-destructive feedback loop: Lack of acknowledgement and action from leadership discourages employees from reporting, which causes leaders to believe that their organization doesn’t actually have a harassment problem. This makes the fallout all the more damaging when it eventually comes to light that they were wrong.
In a white paper my colleague Lori Lipe and I are currently writing, we look at some of the beliefs that hinder employees from reporting sexual harassment. What we are seeing is that employees’ perception of whether harassment is actually taken seriously at the organization factors heavily into their consideration of the costs and benefits of coming forward. In our latest Global Labor Market Survey, CEB, now Gartner, found that employees are significantly less likely to report when there is a gender imbalance at the top management team, particularly when it is male-dominated. This perception likely stems from the skepticism that male leaders may not take harassment as seriously and therefore dismiss accusations or be unmotivated to pursue justice. This relationship is also evident in the findings of the APA survey:
The survey showed the difference when women have representation in upper management. Employees in organizations that have women in senior leadership roles said they were more likely to report sexual harassment at work if they experienced it (56 percent) or witnessed it (55 percent), and confront a coworker who is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior at work (53 percent), compared with employees in organizations that don’t have women in senior leadership roles (39 percent, 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively).
The onus is on leaders to set the tone for the organization and make clear to employees that harassment is taken seriously there. If they do not, harassment victims will decline to come forward out of fear that their allegations will not be believed or that they will face retaliation for making them. The real problem the APA’s findings call out is that leaders aren’t adequately responding to the very public revelations that have come out over the past year. They either believe they’re the exception, aren’t aware of the problems that are actually occurring at the ground level, or simply just don’t know how to respond, so they choose to ignore the problem and hope it goes away (It won’t).
As we know from our culture research, leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of what goes on in an organization can differ widely; if the extent of a harassment problem is among those perceptive gaps, the consequences can be disastrous for employees, and eventually for the organization as well. Leaders and HR may expect employees to simply come to them whenever they have a problem, believing that nothing will hold employees back from doing so if the incident is “serious”. If HR hasn’t heard about a sexual harassment problem, the thinking goes, it must not exist. In reality, however, employees’ willingness to report is much more dependent on the signals they receive from leadership.
Before employees make that decision to come forward, they’re considering what their leaders have said and done, because those leaders determine whether it is safe and culturally acceptable to report. Unless those in power actively encourage employees by saying: “We are here to listen, we are going to respond to what has been happening in the news, and yes, we, too, have these problems,” they cannot expect employees to suddenly feel more confident and safe in calling out harassment or the culture problems within the organization that enable it.