Sexual Harassment Is Real
- When a rainmaker can’t help touching your thigh under the table at meetings.
- When a colleague regularly shares fantasies about sex with you.
- When your client promises more work if you’ll just send a few nudes.
- When your boss shows up at your hotel room in a bathrobe every night of the sales meeting.
- When a coworker never misses an opportunity for a lewd joke or sexual innuendo.
The wave of #MeToo declarations that is dominating the news and taking down powerful leaders from many industries has exposed workplace sexual harassment that before now has often been ignored, condoned, and hidden. The sheer volume of stories suggests that both employers and employees have much to learn about how to create a more inclusive culture that opposes and prevents this behavior.
Sexual harassment at work is exacerbated by imbalances in power inherent in most workplace relationships. When their harassers have the power to undermine their job and career by firing, demoting, or blacklisting them, withdrawing financial or other support for projects, or revoking opportunities, victims may feel reluctant or unable to speak up in the moment or afterward. Fear, shame, and self-doubt combine to further silence victims.
Victims and Companies Can Suffer Long-Lasting Consequences
Victims of harassment can suffer many emotional and physical effects including depression, anxiety, and loss of self-esteem and sleep. Because of this many victims may choose to quit their job or industry all together, leading to negative effects on their careers and wages.
In addition to the pain and suffering experienced by victims, sexual harassment at work costs employers in many ways that can be hard to quantify. Increased absenteeism and job turnover of talented staff are concrete effects. Less measurable but certainly still substantial is the decreased group work productivity and lowered employee engagement that may result from an atmosphere where harassment is not contained.
Sexual harassment can also have legal repercussions for employers who may be held liable for allowing the sexual harassment to persist.
Catalyst Can Help Employers Accelerate Change
Companies need much more than basic policies and training to change behaviors and create a safe environment for all employees. An inclusive workplace built on mutual respect among leaders and employees will not allow behavior that demeans, diminishes, or endangers any employee for any reason. Leaders at the very top of the organization must act as role models, committed to fairness, gender equality, and inclusive leadership in firm and visible ways. HR and business leaders also need to communicate goals and expectations for culture and behavior, as well as hold teams accountable for change.
- Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries
- The Day-to-Day Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion
- Anatomy of Change: How Inclusive Cultures Evolve
- Feeling Different: Being the “Other” in US Workplaces
- Engaging in Conversations About Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace
- Quick Take: Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment
What Can We Do as Individuals?
Workplace culture is the sum of all the actions of each individual employee. All of our actions matter—and we can all help create a more inclusive culture with zero tolerance for discrimination and bad behavior. To begin, we must recognize that professional working relationships between men and women are normal and expected. Sometimes this means we need to have difficult conversations about gender and equity so that we can find a shared path forward. Many of us also need to learn how to speak up as bystanders to harassment or other inappropriate behavior. Most importantly, we need men—who still hold the vast majority of positions of power—to become active champions of workplace inclusion.
- Actions Men Can Take to Create an Inclusive Workplace
- Actions Women Can Take to Support Men’s Engagement
- 10 Steps to Create Inclusive Workplaces
- 10 More Steps to Create Inclusive Workplaces
- Be Inclusive Every Day
- I Am an Ally
- CatalystX course: Communication Skills for Bridging Divides
- Deborah Gillis, “Sexual Harassment: Enough Is Enough,” Catalyzing, October 18, 2017.
- Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (EEOC, June 2016).
- “Task Force Co-Chairs Call on Employers and Others to ‘Reboot’ Harassment Prevention,” EEOC press release, June 20, 2016.
- EEOC, “Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment.”
- Christina M. Reger and Robyn Forman Pollack, “Workplace Sexual Harassment: Me Too or Not Us?,” SHRM, November 13, 2017.
- Stefanie K. Johnson, Jessive Kirk, and Ksenia Keplinger, “Why We Fail to Report Sexual Harassment,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2016.
- Ganga Vijayasiri, “Reporting Sexual Harassment: The Importance of Organizational Culture and Trust,” Gender Issues, vol. 25, no. 1 (March 2008): p. 43-61.
- Tim Gould, “Sexual Harassment: How Smart Companies Train People Not to Act Stupid,” HR Morning, February 23, 2013.
- Yuki Noguchi, “Trainers, Lawyers Say Sexual Harassment Training Fails,” NPR, November 8, 2017.
- Abby Adlerman, Mary Cranston, and Amy Schioldager, “Harassment Not Tolerated: 6 Questions Every Board Should Ask,” Boardspan, October 16, 2017.