The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have spurred heated discussions around the prevalence of sexual harassment. Now is the time to shift from talk to action. Debbie Shotwell, Chief People Officer at Saba Software, offers three steps you can take to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace.
A recent poll found that 54 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, while 60 percent of respondents on a recent Saba webinar said they have been or have witnessed someone being sexually harassed at work. Let those numbers sink in. More than half of all women have been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual remarks or advances while simply doing their job.
Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization with more than a few dozen employees that doesn’t have extensive written policies or compliance training in place to combat sexual harassment. Not only is it typically part of an organization’s standard onboarding process, but several states have also passed legislation requiring mandatory sexual harassment prevention training.
Why then, despite comprehensive anti-harassment policies and training programs, does harassment in the workplace continue to be so pervasive? What is making sexual harassment training so ineffective?
Focus on Culture, Not Compliance
It boils down to this: Sexual harassment is not a compliance issue. It is a culture issue. Making sure employees “check the box” on a once-a-year refresher training course isn’t enough to address the systemic deficiencies that allow this type of behavior to go on.
Sexual harassment isn’t about sex. It’s about power. Unequal power dynamics and corporate structures — coupled with the inability to effectively help employees understand how they can stop the cycle — make the conditions ripe for sexual harassment. To stop workplace harassment, companies need to first address the underlying power imbalance and behavioral expectations that make up the organization’s culture.
And while sexual harassment in the workplace has been a hot topic for over a year now with the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, now is the time to move from discussion to action that ignites change. The onus is on company leadership to create a harassment-free culture where everyone feels respected, supported and safe — not on victims to be brave enough to speak up.
As authors Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker so succinctly summed up, “the culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”
Driving Cultural Change to End Sexual Harassment
Here are three steps organizations can take to begin identifying and addressing the cultural issues that allow harassment to flourish:
1. Figure Out Your Baseline
You can’t map your path forward until you know where you’re starting from. The first step to creating an inclusive company culture is to gather your baseline information, analyze the data and uncover where the trouble spots are.
It’s important to look for patterns in your leadership pipelines and succession plans. It may be an uncomfortable exercise to perform, but it’s vital in order to have a deep understanding of the power dynamics that currently exist within your organization. What are the demographics of those in leadership roles? Do male managers tend to have higher budgets? When looking at your nine-box succession grid, are men and women equally represented in the high-potential pool?
Employee pulse surveys can also be a helpful tool in getting a handle on whether employees feel safe and supported. Fear is a big factor that contributes to a culture of silence around workplace harassment — and understandably so. Sadly, 75 percent of employees who have spoken out against sexual harassment have faced some sort of retaliation. With organizational pulse survey software, you can easily (and anonymously) analyze employee sentiment so you can take swift corrective action where necessary.
2. Offer Learning That Goes Beyond Compliance-Based Training
Sexual harassment training should consist of more than simply watching a video or signing off that you’ve read and agree to the written policy. To effect cultural change, you need to help employees understand the factors that contribute to uneven power dynamics and offer prescriptive guidance on how they can prevent and mitigate the impact of them.
As part of your anti-harassment training curricula, consider adding learning opportunities on topics like identifying and understanding unconscious bias, the value of diversity and inclusion and how bystanders can effectively intervene and stop inappropriate behavior. A learning management system (LMS) that allows you to include informal learning resources like podcasts, blogs and online videos alongside formal training courses can be particularly helpful in engaging employees and ensuring training relevance.
3. Recognize the Process, Not Just the Outcomes
As an executive, results matter to me. They matter a lot. But when evaluating employee performance, we need to start looking at more than whether they met their sales quota or crushed that new product launch. It’s not that performance outcomes don’t matter; it’s that how those outcomes were achieved should matter just as much.
A talent development platform with robust performance management functionality can help you evaluate behavior-based competencies alongside other key performance indicators. Assessing employees on traits that align with your cultural values — such as whether they exhibit integrity, are respectful of others and handle conflict constructively — can be done through the regular performance process and 360-degree peer reviews. And in order to advance within the company, an employee must be considered competent in all of these core values.
Some companies have even implemented formal “No Jerks Allowed” policies, so every employee understands that no matter how brilliant they are or how much revenue they bring in, jerks, harassers and bullies simply won’t be tolerated.
Challenging the Power Dynamics That Perpetuate Harassment
Employers have a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to provide a safe workplace environment for all employees. Just as you wouldn’t allow your employees to operate old or unsafe machinery, you have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive workplace culture that is free of sexual harassment.
And while changing an organization’s culture doesn’t happen overnight, it won’t change at all if senior leaders don’t step up and set the tone for the organization. By taking steps to rebalance corporate power dynamics, eliminate toxic attitudes and behaviors, and teach employees how they can be advocates and allies for change, leaders can put an end to a corporate culture that perpetuates harassment.