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Human Resources

A three-step strategy to tackle sexual harassment threatening the workplace

Published 24 January 2023 in Human Resources • 5 min read

The problem of sexual harassment, violence, and bullying at work is far more widespread than just the highprofile cases hitting the headlines. Organizations need more insight to base the responses to protect their workers and themselves. 

The #MeToo movement has thrust the problem of sexual harassment and violence at work into the spotlight, with stories of abuse that would once have flown under the radar seemingly hitting the headlines far more frequently. No workplace can afford to ignore this issue. Beyond the obvious moral case, it can have an adverse effect on companies through lower productivity, work withdrawal, legal costs, reputational damage, and loss of profitability.  

The most sensational allegations of abuse have surfaced in the media industry as well as in sports and the public sector, but the problem is widespread and affects all sectors of the economy.  

Take the ride-hailing firm Uber as an example. In a safety report, it found that 3,045 incidents of sexual assault were reported in the US in 2018. That represented just a fraction of Uber’s rides that year, and the company underlined various safety measures in the 2019 report. But the figures were jarring for the company, which has also faced allegations of sexual harassment in its internal workforce – part of a string of scandals that ultimately led to the departure of its founder-CEO Travis Kalanick in 2017.  

The problem for such organizations is that they mostly wait until it is too late to tackle these troubling allegations. It is only when those cases are made public, say through whistleblowing to the media, that companies speak out against sexual harassment. Typically, investigations are launched, and calls made for more action. And frequently, that is where it ends.  

To be sure, some progress has been made in recent years. Under pressure from lawmakers, many organizations have put accountability systems in place. These include codes of conduct that prohibit sexual harassment, procedures to report and investigate incidents, and sometimes sanctions (these can range from warnings to unpaid leave of absence and, in some cases, dismissal). But most targets of harassment do not file a complaint, so most perpetrators do not face any consequences. 

In a safety report, the ride-hailing firm Uber found that more than 3,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported in the US in 2018
In a safety report, the ride-hailing firm Uber found that more than 3,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported in the US in 2018

Such responses often do not meet the needs and interests of the victims, repair the harm caused, or prevent future incidents. On the contrary, there is evidence that people who report incidents of harassment in the workplace often face retaliation; some face loss of income and reputation, missed opportunities, and some even lose their jobs. Many more experience negative effects on their mental and physical health such as loss of self-esteem, anxiety, stress, anger, fear, and depression.  

To address this issue, much more effort and time should be invested in prevention. There is no magic bullet, but there are some steps that companies can take to reduce the chances of these incidents happening. Defining the problem and identifying the factors that influence the risk of violence should come before implementation of any solution.  

Generally speaking, it is power relations based on gender and the unequal distribution of power between men and women in an organization that have enabled sexual harassment to flourish at work. But the risk factors will differ for each organization. The following three steps will help firms to define the audience, objectives, and strategy of their all-important prevention efforts.  

1. Understand the problem in your organization  

Assess the nature and extent of the problem in your organization through a workforce survey. Sexual harassment may be pervasive, but the type of problems, their magnitude, and the circumstances in which they occur vary between organizations. The problem might be clients’ use of sexual coercion, for instance, or supervisors making sexualized gestures and comments to their employees.  

Identifying the specific problems will increase the probability of finding a prevention program that meets the needs of your company. More than this, a survey is an opportunity to question behaviors that have been normalized by the culture of the firm and communicate what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable. In addition, the poll gives legitimacy to those who have experienced harassment but whose claims have not been validated.  

There is evidence that people who report incidents of harassment in the workplace often face retaliation — some face loss of income and reputation, and some even lose their jobs

Be sure to use specific behavioral questions instead of broad categories – such as sexual assault, unwanted sexual attention, or rape – that may be poorly defined or understood differently by survey respondents. There are some standardized questionnaires available as well as those developed for specific industries which can be adapted to your needs. Importantly, make sure you give employees the choice to omit questions, so they don’t feel coerced. Likewise, be sure to communicate that the responses are confidential, and ensure that support is available for those who feel affected when responding.  

2. Identify the risk factors  

Identify the factors that might be playing a role in facilitating or preventing incidents of sexual harassment. Some factors can be identified through the survey, but not all. For example, there is evidence that harassment of women is more likely to occur in male-dominated workplaces and be targeted toward employees in precarious work arrangements.  

But research has found that many factors influence the prevalence and types of sexual harassment in the workplace. These include the industry, occupation, group composition, and workgroup or wider organizational culture. Instead of measuring them all, select a study that has examined the occurrence of sexual violence in your industry and measure the factors that are considered in it.  

When it comes to interpreting the results of your own workforce survey, consider if  the sample is representative, but keep in mind that you cannot measure every contributing factor to the problem.   

3. Share knowledge to engage the workforce  

Lastly, it is important to engage allies by sharing the results. When people understand the types of sexual harassment occurring within the organization and comprehend the consequences for direct victims, for teams, and for their workplace, most are willing to collaborate to prevent them.  

In my experience, sharing the results allows for the reflection on strategies, such as direct interventions by managers, and it also engages people on many levels of the organization. These conversations have also been key to assessing leadership commitment and readiness to implement proactive strategies.  

Moreover, discussing results can also be useful to conduct awareness sessions for new employees, who are likely to be more receptive. This will make norms and expectations of behavior clear.  

Ultimately, sexual harassment is a problem that organizations must take seriously. And although a climate of zero-tolerance is ideal, organizations would benefit from understanding the specific problems they have to face in their own workplaces as a starting point. From there, steps can be taken to promote change and build the culture of mutual listening and respect that is essential for workplaces to thrive.  


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