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Let’s talk about sexual harassment at work

Sexual harassment is a plague that has been afflicting the workplace for generations now. It has not gone away and will not if we do not face it head-on. Sexual harassment is still being reported every single day in professional spaces despite the implementation of policies to curb this menace. Sexual harassment in the workplace is pervasive, underreported and even the reported cases are reported too late which stunts their possibility of efficiently using company legislation to reach a positive and fair outcome.

This is also one of those topics that is so vast and nuanced it would be impossible to go over every aspect in one article. It is important to acknowledge that this type of harassment happens universally and is not exclusive to one gender, class or race. This abhorrent disease is everywhere, and it does not discriminate. We must recognize the legal, political, social and economic layers that need to be peeled back in order to dissect and fully understand this plaguing issue. For the sake of this article, I want to touch on (at a high level), the very real existence of sexual harassment in the workplace and the role of HR in helping eradicate it.

In 2019, a study conducted by Civility Partners stated: "53% of employees who experienced harassment were so afraid of a hostile work environment that they didn’t report the behavior.” The statistic alone should be appalling enough to want for change, but are we really creating policies for betterment that are enforced in such a way that creates a safe and healthy environment for the employees it was created to protect? The sad truth is even more disturbing; we have been dealing with harassment cases for generations and during that time have perpetually failed to get it right.

The famous case of Anita Hill is a prime example of company policies failing to protect its employees. In 1991, when Clarence Thomas was nominated by the then President of the United States George H.W Bush, to succeed retiring Associate, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a private interview of Anita Hill was conducted by the FBI. The interview contained multiple claims of sexual harassment Anita Hill faced while working for Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill claimed to be sexually harassed, on multiple occasions by Clarence Thomas while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in an interview that was later leaked.

When called to a public hearing, Anita Hill described her disturbing ordeal whilst working for Clarence Thomas, going into detail about the harassment she faced while working for him. However, despite her testimony made under oath, Anita Hill was repeatedly questioned on why she only reported these instances of harassment 10 years later. Thomas’s supporters claimed that she was a “delusional woman,” and was “seeking revenge” because she felt spurned by Thomas. The case resulted in the Senate Judiciary Committee dismissing Anita Hill’s claims and carelessly tossing her and her case out the door.

You may be asking why I bring Anita Hill’s case so many years later, and that is because her case is about leadership, setting examples and a precedent. The horrible, and frankly unprofessional treatment of Anita Hill was a clear message to all those watching: YOU DARE STEP FORWARD ABOUT YOUR MISTREATMENT AND YOU WILL BE DISMISSED AS A JEALOUS AND DERANGED LIAR. And when this horrific fallacy takes root in the minds of others, the truth and verdicts no longer matter, because a strong message has been sent about the hardships that will certainly come with speaking up.

In the context of organizations; the way people brave enough to come forward with their harassment case to HR are handled and treated, the types of things that HR allows people to get away with will “go without saying” what is acceptable, and thus form a toxic corporate culture. And no policy, no matter how well written, will mean anything to help those in need.

Defining sexual harassment

According to Psychology Today, sexual harassment is defined as: “Sexual harassment and behaviors that fall under this category include: inappropriate touching; invasion of privacy; sexual jokes; lewd or obscene comments or gestures; exposing body parts; showing graphic images; unwelcome sexual emails, text messages, or phone calls; sexual bribery, coercion, and overt requests for sex; sexual favoritism; being offered a benefit for a sexual favor; being denied a promotion or pay raise because you didn’t cooperate. And of course, some women (and men) experience what more aptly could be described as sexual assault.”

It is important to clearly define what constitutes sexual harassment because in many cases individuals are torn between what is acceptable and what is not. Due to a lack of clarity on the understanding of sexual harassment, individuals that experience some form of sexual harassment are not sure if it is worth reporting, especially if they are not sure such acts can be termed as “legally wrong.” I personally have been in several sexual harassment interviews where the person being harassed was worried they were “making a big deal out of nothing,” and have also spoken to those accused of sexual harassment who insisted they were “just joking” or “didn’t do anything bad.”

In most cases, it was proven that the aggressor knew what they did was wrong, but were able to get away with other, lesser infractions and thus became emboldened by the lack of consequences. While other cases showed a gap in understanding, especially when working in very multi-cultural environments where what is deemed appropriate and what is not can be more nuanced.

The role of HR

The simple truth is that nothing can be done if cases are not reported. However, before we start giving corporate speeches of “if anyone is experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work, it is their duty to come forward,” we need to look at ourselves, as an HR organization, with a more critical eye.

Have we, as HR leaders, taken the time to:

  • Clearly defined what harassment looks like in our companies?

  • Clearly outlined what consequences come with certain actions?

  • Rolled out reoccurring, mandatory training for all our employees about harassment?

  • Do we link behavior to KPIs and financial incentives?

  • Do we consider behavior and attitude in hiring, promotion and firing decisions?

  • Do we take allegations and complaints seriously?

  • Do we have appropriate policies in place?

  • Do we have an investigation process?

  • How do we protect those who come forward?

The list of questions goes on, and while they will differ from one company to another my point remains the same; it is about time we take ownership and acknowledge that these things have and still do happen, and as a result we must make reform a priority.

Having policies in place is great, but we need to look at every step of our employee lifecycle and check if we are setting people up for success. From onboarding all the way through to retirement, we must ensure employee success and safety. What do we teach our employees? What do we reward them for? And what actions are punishable? Are the questions we must continue to ask.

We must link conduct to financial incentives and our performance appraisals. We must begin to move beyond rolling out engagement surveys and instead critically analyze our results to look for signs of issues. And most importantly, as the custodians of the organization’s culture, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, setting the example of inspirational and aspirational behavior for our employees.

Is there any good news?

The short answer is yes. With technology we are all more connected from a personal to a global scale, and thus there are fewer ways to hide. Racists are being caught on camera and fired from their jobs; brutality is being filmed and arrests being made as a result. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, many high-powered celebrities and individuals have spoken out about their experiences with sexual assault and/or harassment, emboldening others to do the same without fear of retribution.

The multitude of voices coming out in the wake of the #MeToo movement has broken the previously believed fallacy that sexual harassment only happens to “a certain type of person,” or a certain gender. We have now very publicly witnessed that sexual harassment can happen to anyone, no matter how rich or famous, or whether you are male or female. And no, they are not to be blamed or shamed for speaking out; those that speak out are thanked for their courage and inspirational behavior by those less fortunate, those that were inspired enough by the act of bravery to come forward themselves.

It is my hope that this is the beginning of the end of being silent.

Our ever-connected world has also allowed for very public trials streamed all over the world, we have seen perpetrators be punished for crimes that may have once been dismissed. An example of this is the famous cases of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, wherein the world saw that it is okay to speak out against powerful people, it is okay to bring up wrongdoings from the past and that justice will come from doing so.

Again, as I am writing about this from an HR perspective, I am calling for every single HR professional out there to take a good, hard look at your corporate culture and ask yourself “do our people trust us to flag such incidents?” And “how are we protecting our staff?”

As HR professionals (and human beings) we must have the moral courage to face these problems head-on, no matter how uncomfortable or scary they may be. The first step is acknowledging that the problem exists, then working to build an ecosystem of checks and balances which produces a culture that is inclusive, transparent, and safe for everyone.

Are you doing your part?

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