Decades of Well-Meaning Responses to Sexual Harassment Have Failed. Can We Do Better?
It’s finally out there for everyone to see. Not just that sexual harassment and sexual assault pervades the workplace — but that decades of well-meaning responses have failed. Sexual harassment training has little to show for itself, and might even be counter-productive. Human resources departments and reporting mechanisms are have conflicting mandates and little institutional power, making them ineffective or even complicit in covering up harassment. Formal policies primarily designed to satisfy the lawyers are unlikely to protect workers from the harm of harassers in their workplace.
Employers still frequently turn to these three core interventions — training, complaint procedures, and written policies — that we know are fundamentally broken. It’s time to take a hard look at how we respond to sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, and identify better tools and more effective approaches.
Researchers who study harassment, bias and discrimination in the workplace have been telling us for years that typical training, reporting procedures and workplace policies don’t measure up. The kind of mandatory, compliance-focused, one-time training that is quite popular isn’t designed to address the deep cultural and structural reasons sexual harassment persists. We have good reason to doubt whether training can improve behavior — and we are worried it might increase the chances of backlash. Setting up a grievance procedure or writing a sexual harassment policy, especially when it is primarily a lawyer-driven risk management tool, can become a “check the box exercise” in mere symbolic compliance. And one recent study highlights how gendered frameworks and cultural cues may affect how people interpret these policies, making it easier to protect harassers from accountability.
All that is validated as we hear more and more individual stories, of women (and men) who tried to stop abusers and report harassment and assault and were ignored or even punished for speaking up. Which only led others to conclude it simply wasn’t worth it to report — or to intervene as bystanders.
So what do we do instead?
First instead of turning to generic “sexual harassment training,” think broadly about organizational learning strategies and how your workforce can be a resource rather than an audience. Employees at all levels are a wildly underutilized resource, even though they often understand best how to make their workplaces better. Engage employees to be more effective bystanders and empower affinity groups and internal committees to provide a collective voice for the interests of workers experiencing harassment and sexual violence at work. If your workplace is unionized, management should partner with worker representatives to establish safe and effective reporting systems. And when you use training, target learning agendas in ways that make sense, like ensuring every supervisor understands their responsibility to prevent and address workplace bias and to build an inclusive culture.
Don’t just assign your HR office to handle complaints on the side — build a real and independent function that provides safety to workers who report and holds individuals who violate workplace rules and norms accountable. That might mean an internal ombudsperson who has the clout and integrity to conduct meaningful investigations and deal with real problems, or an external service that helps workers strategize confidentially and get support, or some combination of these approaches. Organizations that lack accountability and transparent and effective complaint procedures are more vulnerable to harassment.
And understand your policy as not just a written document but a whole set of practices and structures that guide how your workplace operates and its level of equity. Organizations should look at who holds power and whether women have an equal opportunity to advance and address those issues. Companies that have higher levels of gender equity seem to have better track records when it comes to workplace harassment. While it’s no guarantee against harassing conduct, it may help and is important in its own right.
Finally, remember that gender-based sexual harassment is just one of the ways bias and abuse can manifest in the workplace — and that it can exist alongside and interact with harassment and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and the whole spectrum of identities we bring to work.
Our national conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is long overdue. And we should take the opportunity for an equally overdue reckoning with these well-meaning but failed responses. Building an inclusive and safe workplace is not just about the right intent. It takes commitment. Employers who are ready to ask the hard questions about what works and rethink their approaches have the chance to be real leaders in the fight against harassment.