The importance of an anti-harassment culture
June 01, 2017
I came across an interesting article at the Harvard Business Review—The Omissions That Make So Many Sexual Harassment Policies Ineffective. The article starts with a simple question. “If 98% of organizations in the United States have a sexual harassment policy, why does sexual harassment continue to be such a persistent and devastating problem in the American workplace?”
The article suggests the answer lies in corporate and cultural norms that such policies fail to address—that sexual harassment is embedded in organizational culture, which in turn are embedded in a larger national culture in which men have traditionally been granted privileges over women. As a result, sexual harassment policies focus on the behaviors of harassment and victims perceptions of those behaviors (which one can marginalize, ignore, or blame on the victim).
The article goes on to suggest two related solutions to this harassment-policy drafting problem:
- “Include culturally appropriate, emotion-laden language in sexual harassment policies. For example, language such as ‘Sexual harassment is a form of predatory sexual behavior in which a person targets other employees.’ Using terms such as ‘predatory’ instead of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘target’ instead of ‘victim’ can shape how organizational members interpret the policy.
- “Sexual harassment policies should include bystander interventions as a required response to predatory sexual behavior. Most policies place responsibility for reporting harassment exclusively on the target, which puts them in a vulnerable position. If they report the behavior, then they are likely to be viewed with suspicion by their colleagues, often becoming socially isolated from their coworkers. On the other hand, if they do not report the sexual harassment, then it is likely to continue unabated, creating harm for the targeted employee, and wider organizational ills, too. Mandating bystander intervention can relieve the target of their sole responsibility for reporting and stopping predatory sexual behavior, and rightly puts the responsibility of creating a healthier organizational culture on all members of the organization.”
This all makes for a very interesting read, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Any anti-harassment policy, no matter how drafted, is not be worth the paper on which it’s written unless the company has an overall culture that abhors harassment. In other words, an employer must take all complaints seriously. Taking complaints seriously includes ensuring that all employees understand the harassment policy, that employees have more than one avenue to make complaints, that investigators are properly trained, that the company regularly reviews its policies and procedures for compliance and effectiveness, and that no one ever suffers retaliation.
No anti-harassment program is perfect, but you must have one that’s effective. Otherwise, no matter where the he-said/she-said pendulum swings, you will start every harassment case at a disadvantage.