From Anita Hill’s allegations in the 1990s to the recent flood of allegations in the news headlines, sexual harassment has been a persistent and pervasive problem. It occurs at all levels, across all occupations. While many companies have policies addressing inappropriate and unwelcome sexual behavior in the workplace, those policies may not be enough.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is on the rise, according to a report issued last year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The report showed that up to 80 percent of women and up to 19 percent of men reported being sexually harassed. Harassment based on sex is also the most common complaint. Out of 28,000 EEOC complaints in 2015, 45 percent of alleged harassment was based on sex. Yet despite these high percentages, only about six to 13 percent of employees ever make a formal complaint.
Below is a summary of the EEOC report’s findings, which identified the types of workplaces that are particularly susceptible to workplace harassment, and outlined tactics for reducing it.
Some Workplaces More Susceptible Than Others
The EEOC report noted the following types of workplaces where sexual harassment is most likely to occur, including:
- Homogenous workplaces where there is a lack of diversity.
- Workplaces with many young employees. According to the report, young employees lack experience in the workplace and may not be aware of the rules and appropriate behavior. They may also be targets of experiencing sexual harassment because of their lack of self-confidence and vulnerability.
- Isolated work environments. A limited number of witnesses and working alone leaves individuals prone to sexual harassment or assault.
- Decentralized workplaces. A lack of communication with corporate offices may foster a climate that permits harassing conduct to go unchecked.
- Workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption. Alcohol can reduce social inhibitions and judgment.
- Workplaces with “high value” employees. Senior management may not want to punish high-performing or valued employees, and the “high value” employees may believe that workplace rules do not apply to them.
Tips for Preventing Sexual Harassment
All employers should conduct periodic harassment training for all employees that explains the employer’s sexual harassment policy and educates employees how to report harassment. But the EEOC suggests these actions that may reduce sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Consider revising zero-tolerance policies. Zero-tolerance policies may confuse and mislead employees. Employees may believe that a zero-tolerance policy will always result in severe discipline, and, therefore, may not report an incident because they do not want a co-worker to lose their job over something relatively minor. The level of discipline should match the conduct, which a zero-tolerance policy language may not reflect.
- Manage your middle. Middle management has been identified as the key employee group that can have the highest impact on combatting harassment. Middle management, therefore, should be properly trained to not only appropriately respond to unlawful harassment, but also how to properly react to all allegations of sexual harassment before it rises to the level of creating a hostile work environment. Further, not only should middle management be accountable for reporting harassment up the chain to superiors, they should also be incentivized to prevent it from happening.
- Consider alternative sexual harassment policies. For example, workplace civility training is gaining in popularity. Workplace civility training focuses employee training on not only what is illegal but also what behaviors are merely offensive. The study found that uncivil behaviors, if left unchecked, often “spiral” into illegal conduct.
Although a comprehensive review of your sexual harassment policy and corporate culture may be a wise idea, not every workplace needs such a drastic overhaul. Many employers have well-trained HR professionals and managers who are committed to creating an environment free from discrimination and harassment. However, even the most dedicated businesses should be aware of the vulnerabilities unique to their workplace and explore new tactics to assist in keeping sexual harassment and other unlawful conduct at bay.