It could be an off-color joke. It could be a question, a look or a touch. It could even be a compliment. The fact is, sexual harassment comes in many forms—and it’s not always easy to spot. Something considered friendly banter by one person may be intimidating or offensive to another.
“You can debate about, ‘How offensive is it? Should it be a big deal or should you just brush it off?’ That’s really each person’s own comfort level,” says Gregory Tall, director of learning and development for JB Training Solutions in Chicago. “The big thing that every law takes into consideration is, ‘Is the conduct or the comment unwelcome?’ If the answer is yes, then you say, ‘That person crossed the line here.’”
Conversations about consent—and what’s over the line—have become more common with the emergence of the #MeToo movement. High-profile sexual harassment and assault cases have kept attention on the unwanted encounters people have to navigate in the workplace. And negative experiences are far from uncommon. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that 60% of women had experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct or sexist comments in the workplace. And a survey by the Trades Union Congress found that seven in 10 LGBT people have been sexually harassed at work.
But the tides may be turning. Rather than just ticking a box on a compliance checklist, leaders are looking for ways to elevate the conversation about respect in the workplace.
“I think there has been a dramatic shift,” Tall says. “Those who are doing it are doing it more as an integral part of their work around inclusivity and having an equitable workplace.”
Start the conversation
Because harassment can be so subjective, stopping it often requires seeing things from another person’s point of view.
“I think most people want to come to a great workplace and have an equitable, inclusive environment,” Tall says. “That said, they might not always have the tools to behave in such a way to do that.”
|“You can debate about, ‘How offensive is it? Should it be a big deal or should you just brush it off?’ That’s really each person’s own comfort level.”
—Gregory Tall, JB Training Solutions
Clearly communicating what type of behavior is expected, and why, can help leaders create a safe environment that promotes high employee morale. Formal training on how to respond to problematic situations can also help teams create healthy strategies for dealing with harassment—and avoid emotionally charged confrontations.
“Training that is more of an open conversation is always beneficial,” says Wendy Christie, HR specialist at EmployerESource.com in Bozeman, Montana.
This is especially helpful in the world of property management, where people often work alone or in small teams at on-location offices, without direct oversight. Open communication also helps people understand their options for dealing with harassment when it comes from a client or resident—without harming important business relationships.
A healthy response
As these conversations become more acceptable in the workplace, more people are coming forward to discuss their experiences. The number of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC jumped 14% from 2017 to 2018. However, research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center of Employment Equity found that more than 99% of workplace harassment still goes unreported.
That’s not surprising, with retaliation still a problem. The University of Massachusetts study found that nearly two-thirds of sexual harassment charges are associated with job loss. Organizations that want to create a safe working environment have to eliminate the fear and stigma associated with coming forward, Tall says.
“You have to make it easy to report harassment,” he says. “You want employees to bring things to you sooner, when they first notice something, before it’s become a systemic issue.”
|“Just doing something can leave you with more problems. So you need to say [to the person who made the complaint], ‘Well, how would you like to see this handled?’”
—Wendy Christie, EmployerESource.com
Christie says that having a third-party reporting system can make people feel comfortable reporting harassment, especially if their harasser is in a position of power. “They have somebody they can call who isn’t part of the company.”
Once a complaint is made, Christie recommends asking the accuser how they would like to see the problem handled. While an organization can’t always comply with the employee’s request, this keeps the lines of communication open and gets the affected team member involved in finding a productive solution. Otherwise, managers could end up making the situation worse.
Christie cites an instance involving one of her restaurant clients. A server complained about being sexually harassed by a customer. After she made her complaint, her managers moved her to a different section where she said she made less money—which led her to sue for damages.
“Just doing something can leave you with more problems,” Christie says. “So you need to say [to the person who made the complaint], ‘Well, how would you like to see this handled?’”
From the ground up
Top-down policies are a necessary piece of the puzzle, but they can only take a company so far. Building a more respectful organization must also involve a shift in culture.
“We’ve all been at a team meeting where someone has expressed something that was clearly over the line,” Tall says. “Typically, there is an awkward moment of silence where everyone realizes, ‘They shouldn’t have said or done that.’ Then they all try to press through and pretend like nothing happened.”
To make that scenario the exception rather than the rule, teams should make a habit of calling out encounters that make people uncomfortable. Aggressive confrontation is not necessary. Simply stating when someone has acted inappropriately will normally be enough to discourage that behavior in the future.
“If everyone does it, and everyone does it consistently, then we start to normalize that,” Tall says.
And that’s going to be important to compete in the talent marketplace of the future. Organizations that don’t take harassment seriously will have a hard time attracting high-performers, who are powerful engines of the economy.
“If you don’t fix the toxicity and the culture, what eventually happens is, people leave,” Tall says. “If you don’t have an organization that is welcoming and inclusive, you’re not going to have access to the top talent.”