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Changing a Culture of Sexual Harassment: Empowerment Needs to be Built into the Workplace

It’s time to move beyond compliance and create company cultures that are safe for all employees to thrive.

Now, more than ever, ignorance of employer moral and legal duties will not be an excuse for failing to deal with sexual harassment and protecting employees. Ignited by high-profile allegations of flagrant abuse of power and mistreatment of colleagues, this serious issue has captured the public zeitgeist and awoken us to the true prevalence of sex-based harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Yet, even though a cultural shift demanding increased accountability for workplace sexual harassment may be occurring in the public eye, the scale of the issue is staggering and begs the question as to what is being done behind closed doors. An introspective analysis of business circles reveals that existing laws are ineffective and that the prevention of sexual harassment is more a matter of culture than a matter of court.

But many organizations have done little to address sexual harassment, which has contributed to hostile work environments not only for victims of sex-based abuse but also for employees who are merely bystanders.

The Bigger Picture

Damning figures from a number of polls and studies offer us a small insight into the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Numbers released by the U.S. federal agency Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), back in late 2018 show that even as the overall number of complaints it received is down 9.3% from 2017, complaints about sexual harassment rose 13.6% over the previous year.

One in three workers in Australia, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission’s 2018 report on sexual harassment, said that they had been sexually harassed at work over the last five years, compared with one in five from its 2012 survey and one in ten in 2003.

And according to the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission three-quarters of people who responded to its 2017 Turning the tables: Ending sexual harassment at work study had experienced sexual harassment at work; the rest had witnessed harassment or supported others.

The above are useful, if imperfect, markers for measuring the magnitude of sexual harassment across the globe. And even though they offer a small glimpse into the pervasive problem of sexual harassment, the fact that many more people made it to an EEOC filing or are admitting to being victims of this abhorrent crime, it’s reasonable to imagine that complaints registered elsewhere, be that externally or internally, rose as well.

However, sexual harassment and assault is widely underreported for a range of reasons, from fear of retaliation to concerns surrounding non-belief of victims.

  • It’s estimated that only about 15% to 20% of workers who experience sexual harassment and assault report it.
  • These findings also align with those of Australia’s Human Rights Commission, who’s results revealed that formal reporting of workplace sexual harassment continues to be low, with only 17% of people making a report or complaint.
  • To add, a UK-wide survey by the Young Women’s Trust revealed that a third of women don’t know how to report sexual harassment if it occurs at work and a fifth state that they are too afraid to complain.
  • Furthermore, 24% of the women they polled feared being fired if they speak openly about being a victim of sexual harassment at work.

Plus we’re only just beginning to understand the prevalence of sexual assault suffered by men. Most research looking at sexual harassment focuses on women, with relatively few studies dealing with men who are harassed, but there has been a spike in reported cases of more men reporting sexual harassment too.

Cases in recent years have often involved men sexually harassing other men, even involving physical assaults. There is, however, still a lot of work to be done to highlight overt and subtle sexual workplace harassment among men. By having gendered assumptions – such as the idea that the perpetrator is always male and always in control – limits our understanding of the true pervasiveness of sexual assault in society.

Power to your People

As employers, you have a moral and ethical duty to protect your people. You have one basic obligation to them – to provide a safe working environment free from discrimination and harassment, which means that you should take all reasonable steps to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing.

Demonstrating concern for the physical and mental health of your workers shouldn’t just be seen as a legal duty – there’s a clear business case, too, because it can be a key factor in building trust and reinforcing your commitment to them, and can help improve staff retention, boost productivity and pave the way for greater employee engagement.

And in an environment where there are signs of a rising impetus toward more purposeful business, with conscious consumerism going mainstream – trust and transparency are paramount for business survival. What we are seeing is greater demands for the end of corporate malfeasance, more ethical choices, and even investors demanding the longer-term viability of ethical corporations.

One of the greatest motivations is coming from inside organizations – from employees refusing to stand by unethical behavior.

Workers are having an increased willingness to seek some semblance of justice in the face of workplace harassment and are starting to get more vocal. They are building communities around your business and around your brand. They are connecting more with each other and are starting to change what they don’t like. If they feel that they don’t have a voice or things won’t change, then they will leave.

While backlash to an organization’s culture often comes in the form of lost revenue or negative press, the Google walkouts in the fall of 2018 showed that employers who fail to engage cultural issues don’t just risk customer attrition or litigation, they risk losing large swaths of top talent – even if they’re Google.

Probably the strongest predictor for sexual harassment in a workplace is whether there is a widespread culture of tolerance for this kind of treatment. Organizations that provide a sustainable ethical core by having strong anti-harassment policies in place and provide a modern approach to learning, culture and employee communication, provide the best protection for their workers who otherwise find they have no choice but to quit their jobs to escape harassment.

Conversely, by empowering your workers and creating a healthy culture will help them remain sensitive to the difference between what is ethically and morally correct and what is not; it provides the tools to tackle dilemmas in a less biased way; it will engage them and turn them into owners of your company’s ethics; and, ultimately, build the workplace power needed to address sexual harassment.


Learn more about Ethics and Compliance Learning from SAI Global.

Or, request a demo to see how SAI Global can help organizations like yours create a company culture free from sexual harassment