Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What will it take to get leaders to listen?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has taken an unprecedented center stage in recent months, with waves of new high-profile cases coming to light.  With Time Magazine naming #MeToo as its person of the year, and FT honoring Susan Fowler as “Person of the Year” for her blog post about the problems she experienced at Uber, it seems that the issue is finally getting the visibility it deserves.

For many, especially those in the technology industry, the spotlight on this issue is long overdue. In an industry that is still predominantly male, ingrained behaviors in many company cultures have often prohibited women from getting into positions of leadership, and have created an environment that many women find intolerable.

According to recent research from Next Concept Human Resource Association and Waggl, nearly 9 out of 10 people anticipate that preventing sexual harassment will become a greater concern to company leadership in 2018.  The “Voice the Workplace” pulse was sent to thousands of people from organizations of all sizes, using Waggl’s crowdsourced listening platform from December 5-12, 2017.  Of the 873 people who participated, 89% agreed with the following statement: “I anticipate that preventing sexual harassment will become a greater concern of company leadership in 2018, given the recent wave of high-profile cases in the news.” The responses were almost unanimously positive across various demographics including age, gender, and job function. For respondents 61+ years of age and for people from large for-profit corporations with 20,000 employees or more, a full 94% of respondents agreed that sexual harassment will become a greater priority in the coming year.

Although the vast majority of respondents thought preventing sexual harassment would become a greater concern to company leadership this year, 68% of participants in an ongoing follow-up pulse are not optimistic that the media attention will lead to ease of progress in HR departments. Waggl and NCHRA asked participants whether they agreed with this statement: “The increased media attention around high-profile sexual harassment cases will make things easier for HR in the coming year.”  Some interesting demographic splits were revealed in the responses, with 53% of the participants age 20-30 years believing that things would be easier for HR, in contrast with only 29% of respondents age 31-40 years.  In mid-sized for-profit corporations with 5,00-20,000 employees, 38% of participants felt that things would become easier, versus only 18% of the people from large for-profit corporations with 20,000+ employees.

As a follow-up question, Waggl and NCHRA asked participants if they believed that the best way to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace is to ensure high standards for leaders.  A full 90% of respondents agreed, with relative consistency across gender, age, and organization type.

So, what will it take to get leaders to finally listen, in light of the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is still a major issue despite laws, penalties, and mandated training to prevent it?  How can we get leadership to take ownership of this issue?

Here are some of the answers we received from HR professionals:

  • “Accountability is key, including termination of employment for high profile leaders.  HR can raise issues and demand action all day long but unless the Board or CEO is willing to take disciplinary action up to and including termination, there will be no credibility for HR.”
  • “Leaders have to talk about it with their teams.  It’s uncomfortable.  People don’t want to talk about it. It’s easier to pretend it’s a problem elsewhere.  Leaders need to step up and take personal responsibility to make things better.”
  • “It is more than creating high expectations for leaders, it is including the whole organization in the high expectations.  Continuous training, and providing a responsible and accountable way for leaders at all levels to address sexual harassment. HR needs to be able to properly investigate claims and not side with leaders, up to and including using a third party, and even terminating HR that does not properly maintain an unbiased opinion and respectability.”
  • “Clearly identify the difference between a mistake in judgment and criminal abuse.  The difference between sexual harassment that is accidental is due to misreading the level of trust and current emotional state of the relationship. However, it is very clear when sexual harassment is used to control or coerce or attack another person.  Often the poor judgement to say something that makes someone feel uncomfortable can be solved via communication whereas criminal level are hard to deal with – people need to understand the difference.”

The issue of sexual harassment is an important topic that elicits strongly-held beliefs from everyone in the workforce. From an HR perspective, it is a lingering problem that has been festering for quite some time at many organizations, and it presents a huge amount of unseen risk.  And yet, despite laws, policies, and mandated trainings, and all the recent media attention, the issue remains pervasive and unresolved.

In order to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to create a culture of respect with zero tolerance for harassment, ensure that leadership sets an example of ideal workplace behaviors, and offer actionable education across the board.  It’s crucial for HR professionals to create a forum for authentic communication so that people can safely share their experiences.  Providing people with a safe, open network in which to share their opinions anonymously is a great way to open up a 2-way dialogue and create a foundation of mutual respect and trust.


About the Author:  Kate Benediktsson, M.A., AMFT

Kate is a serial entrepreneur, psychotherapist, founder, and author. Founder of 7 businesses, Kate is now an executive and part of the founding team for Waggl, an enterprise SaaS business in HR Tech. As Chief Marketing Officer, Kate is part of a team that improves the performance and engagement of thousands of organizations and hundreds of thousands of employees around the globe.

Kate believes that radical self-expression, respect, trust, and empathy lead to a connected and engaged workforce, and that the best ideas and input can come from anyone in the organization. In addition to her work at Waggl, Kate volunteers as a psychotherapist at Community Violence Solutions, a sexual assault crisis center and non-profit organization.  Kate has a Masters in Counseling Psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University, where she graduated with honors.

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