The Moral Courage to Take Action
What are we doing to protect our employees from sexual harassment and predatory sexual behavior?
By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | December 5, 2017
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a morally reprehensible act. Despite the negative publicity, the problem remains pervasive in workplaces throughout the U.S. It victimizes vulnerable employees, lowers morale, and costs employers millions of dollars each year in lost productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover, and liability.
In the last year, we’ve seen the careers of numerous celebrities and public figures destroyed following revelations of their predatory behavior towards colleagues and staff. As more details of these incidents become public, we react with support for the victims coming forward and disgust towards the offenders. Additionally, we’re outraged by staff, executives, and other parties who chose to protect and, in some cases, enable these offenders.
Victim accounts of sexual harassment continue as lead stories in traditional and online media. However, the vast majority of the victims are women and some men, who are neither celebrities nor high-profile public figures. Until this last year, they’ve felt forced to endure such offensive behavior in isolation. The exploitation of individuals by those in positions of power demands that we address this problem now while a significant audience is still listening.
The hurt and anger we hear from victims are understandable. There’s a lot of outrage voiced by political pundits, but the calls for justice and a “day of reckoning” do little more than fuel political debate. A typical political candidate’s position will sound something like this: “We need more laws concerning sexual harassment. They need to be stricter, and they need to specifically support victims who come forward, and impose increasingly severe consequences on the offenders.”
Such a perspective has significant historical precedence. Federal and state laws with mandated reporting requirements and established enforcement agencies have resulted in workplaces with less risk of employee injury, and fewer incidents of discrimination in hiring and advancement practices.
However, no reasonable person would honestly declare that we’ve eliminated unsafe working conditions and discrimination in the workplace. We need to remind ourselves that improving safety and anti-discrimination conditions in the workplace have taken over 60 years of slow progress; and so, we remain vigilant with the higher standards we’ve set in these areas so positive development will continue.
My wife and three adult children all work in different career fields. I have four beautiful, smart granddaughters who will one day join the workforce and pursue careers of their own. The prospect of it taking years to address sexual harassment adequately to protect employees from such abuses is unacceptable to me, and hopefully, it is to you as well. Change requires action, but action must begin with the right mindset.
I agree with those who feel that our workplaces are most effective and efficient when we foster an environment that respects the dignity of every employee. If we genuinely want to change a workplace culture for the better, employers must lead “from the top” through policies, practices, and exemplary personal behavior. Employees must become actively engaged in supporting these efforts, and likewise lead by how we speak and behave towards others.
You and I need to become actively engaged in changing the cultures of our respective workplaces. We need to nurture a culture that promotes greater respect, civility, and professionalism at work. However, we also need to end the culture of secrecy and silence that has allowed sexual harassment to go unchecked for far too long.
You and I need to listen to the victims of sexual harassment in our workplaces without prejudice or judgment. Victims need our encouragement and support whether they choose to stop the predator themselves or report the offender to someone in authority. One thing is sure, ignoring the problem is not a solution.
Sadly, victims of almost any offense in our society must consider the consequences of coming forward, including the public opinions and scrutiny that will follow their claim. Nearly 70% of those who have reported incidents of sexual harassment feel they have also experienced retaliation for coming forward. These reprisals underscore the need for encouragement and support. You and I must be ready and willing to stand with these victims.
Workplaces are not courts of law. Evidence against a harasser does not have to meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, it’s difficult to terminate an employee in situations that are limited to “he said – she said” assertions with no corroboration.
Victims of sexual harassment need to share what has happened with other co-workers (not just a single close friend). Victims also need to document the date, time, and details of any sexual harassment that occurs. Finally, victims need to save any emails that refer to or demonstrate further harassment. Such emails are “evidence” that includes the offender’s name along with a time and date stamp.
Offenders need to know that the victim considers what they’re doing to be sexual harassment—that it’s wrong and it’s unacceptable. They need to hear this from the victims, and they may need to hear it from you and me as well. Offenders need to understand that others are watching. They need to realize that it’s only a matter of time before witnesses report these offenders to their superiors. Once that step occurs, the relationship between the offenders and the organization will likely end, jeopardizing future career aspirations.
The rest of us (The Bystanders)
I recently saw a newscast on CNN that referred to a survey indicating that 52% of men and 71% of women have witnessed sexual harassment at work that they chose to ignore. I’m ashamed to admit that I fall into this category and have failed to speak up in situations when it was my responsibility to do so.
We need to stop offenders and expose their harassment. Victims need encouragement and support, but the rest of us need to commit ourselves to become “active bystanders” in our workplaces. Doing so will help end the culture of secrecy and silence that allow incidents of sexual harassment to continue. The role of an “active bystander” is not a new concept, but it’s worthy of our consideration and one that employers should encourage in our workplaces. This role typically includes the following:
- Acknowledge that sexual harassment exists and realize that we have a role to play in ending this problem in our workplaces. We need to make sure others know where we stand on this issue.
- Honestly evaluate our behavior toward co-workers and subordinates. Determine to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Demonstrate sensitivity toward others:
- Make ourselves available to listen without prejudice or pre-judgment and offer support
- Be prepared to empathize with the victim, without assigning blame
- Allow the victim to control the situation. Help them to report sexual harassment, if they choose to, but secure their permission before going to management on their behalf.
Look for ways to positively impact the workplace:
- Help create an environment where employees feel safe
- Practice inclusion and don’t allow potentially vulnerable employees to be isolated
- Be observant and don’t ignore what is going on around you.
- Lead by example
Keep it honest:
- Don’t give your friends a pass. Hold them accountable.
- Confront co-workers that excuse abusive behavior, whether they are perpetrators or witness the abuse
- Speak up when something offensive is said or if you observe sexual, sexist, or homophobic remarks or behavior
It’s time for us to practice greater inclusion with our co-workers. It’s time to prioritize the level of civility and professionalism we bring to our workplace relationships. It’s time to commit ourselves to become “active bystanders” at work. Moreover, it’s past time for each of us to stand up, accept individual responsibility, and refuse to tolerate incidents of sexual harassment in our workplaces.
We don’t have to wait for the 2018 mid-term elections or the enactment of federal and state laws to change the status quo. If we’re going to keep our employees safe from predatory sexual behavior, employers and employees alike need to respond by assuming responsibility and taking the steps necessary to end this reprehensible behavior immediately.
We most assuredly can end sexual harassment in our workplaces. We know what to do, and all we need is the will and moral courage necessary to act now.