Sexual Harassment

The majority of workers can’t correctly identify sexual harassment, study shows

HR policies can make or break workers’ awareness of sexual harassment.
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· 5 min read

“Eric was recently hired at a pediatrician’s office…over time, Eric learns that the employees in the office refer to him as ‘Dr. Hot Butt.’ He frequently encounters groups of women standing in the break room, talking about him in explicit terms, and laughing; when they see him, the women teasingly catcall him. When Eric asks them to stop, he finds out there is a rumor he is gay.”

Would you categorize this scenario as sexual harassment? As an HR professional, you probably didn’t think twice: Yes, this is textbook unwanted sexual attention. But would your workers see the signs? New research suggests maybe not.

The Cornell ILR School presented this and six other scenarios to over 400 workers in the accommodation and food services, information, manufacturing, and retail industries (the industries with the highest rates of sexual harassment complaints reported to the EEOC between 2005 and 2015). Just 6% of participants correctly identified all seven scenes as sexual harassment.

Even in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which advocates hoped would lead to strengthen HR policies addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, the EEOC still received over 5,500 complaints of sexual harassment last year. And if Cornell’s research is any indication, that could be an undercount.

But not all participants flunked the test. The research suggests that those who believe their HR teams have taken a stance against sexual harassment are more likely to be able to correctly identify it.

Opting in. Phoebe Strom, the lead researcher on the study, told HR Brew via email that the most important thing HR can do is have a policy on sexual harassment, and actually enforce it.

Not all employers do. In the US, sexual harassment training is only mandated by law in six states and three cities—and the laws vary in their stringency. Employers outside these locales are left to determine on their own whether to have a written sexual harassment policy and provide training.

Jha’nee Carter, owner of HR consultancy #HRQUEEN, recommended companies voluntarily craft written sexual harassment policies and share them with employees early—as soon as orientation—to demonstrate their commitment to building a zero-tolerance culture. If companies don’t create such policies, she said, they risk seeming like they don’t care.

“Employees appreciate that. I want to know when I go into a company organization that I am protected as an employee,” Carter said. “So it's important for managers…to say that during orientation: This is our policy on discrimination and sexual harassment and we do not tolerate it. If you are a victim of sexual harassment or you are bystanders and this is how you report it.”

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Carter said the best policies will be devoid of legalese and use concrete, industry specific examples. When she runs training sessions, she said she uses interactive examples, including bystander scenarios, that, she hopes, will be relatable to trainees.

“People like real life scenarios: they're like, ‘Hey, that did happen to me,’ or, ‘Hey, that did happen to a coworker of mine.’” Carter said. “And so it helps them really grasp the idea.”

Strom, who is a PhD candidate at Cornell in industrial and labor relations, said via email that HR can increase awareness not only through training, but by establishing and enforcing sexual harassment policies. Only 28% of participants in Cornell’s study said they felt their employer’s sexual harassment policy  had been “strongly enforced,” meaning the majority of participants worked for employers that did not have or “effectively disregarded” policies, according to Strom.

Walk the walk. Sharing a policy once at orientation isn’t enough. Just as children pick up behaviors by watching their peers, employees learn how to conduct themselves in the workplace by watching what goes on.

“If employees see that how it plays out in training isn’t how it plays out at work, they’re not going to believe the training,” Strom said.

Carter stressed companies needed to formally and transparently investigate complaints to foster trust. Maria d'Avanzo, chief evangelist officer at harassment training platform provider Traliant, said HR teams can also demonstrate top-down commitment to sexual harassment prevention by incorporating into their trainings a message from the CEO. This, she said, can  avoid programming having an “off the shelf” feel.

Strom also said a company’s culture and the factors that influence it—including hiring and feedback processes—can contribute to increased sexual harassment awareness and reporting. So can ensuring that employees who do come forward with complaints are not retaliated against, noted d'Avanzo.

“This is less about learning what harassment is through training and more about what behaviors employees see normalized in the workplace,” Strom said. “In conjunction with a formal harassment policy, when employees are empowered to seek recourse and there is less structural vulnerability built into the workplace…we find that they are better at identifying harassment when they see it.”—SV

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.