Employees poorly equipped to deal with sexual harassment (Guest commentary)

Employers spend too much time making the point that this behaviour is unacceptable, not enough giving workers the skills for dealing with it
By Linda Gordon Howard
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2008

Sexual harassment is a serious, difficult and challenging issue for employers and employees alike. While most sexual harassment in the workplace is experienced by women, complaints can and do come from every quarter and from everyone. Virtually anyone who works can be sexually harassed, and surveys show sexual harassment is common, even rampant, in some organizations.

It is critical that both public and private employers develop effective means to address it. The costs to employees’ well-being, employers’ financial viability and worker productivity are too great to allow the issue to continue unabated.

The current means of addressing sexual harassment are:

•preventive policies;

•complaint procedures;

•subsequent prompt corrective action;

•training; and

•administrative or judicial proceedings.

These means have been woefully inadequate whether by nature, by design or in implementation. After years of mandatory sexual harassment training and regular news coverage, most people still do not know exactly what sexual harassment is. Additionally, most people do not have the skills to deal effectively with sexual behavior in the workplace at the critical time — the moment when it happens.

There is a widespread, inaccurate and damaging belief that the goal of sexual harassment prevention is to eliminate all sexual activity from the workplace. A culture has developed around sexual harassment issues and prevention that is counterproductive. Organizations tend to panic and overreact to complaints or, conversely, withdraw into comfortable overconfidence.

What’s missing?

Both employers and employees need to understand what sexual harassment is and is not. Too often, training programs do not include top management — the very people who set policy and determine what corrective action, if any, is to be taken on a complaint.

Training programs need to go beyond delivering information and prohibitions to include teaching employees how to assess their own behavior in light of the operative definition of sexual harassment and supporting employees to have greater interest in how their behavior affects their fellow employees.

It is not enough to tell people, even forcefully, that sexual harassment is prohibited. They must be trained on how to stop the prohibited behavior. Even viewing situational videos is useless unless employees leave the training session able and willing to assess and alter their own behavior.

Sexual harassment happens when there is unwanted sexual behavior that results in employees losing tangible job benefits, interferes with employees doing their jobs or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Altering the environment typically involves repeated behavior, unless a single act is extreme and serious.

Dealing with and avoiding unwanted sexual behavior requires that employees have access to discovering what behavior is unwanted or unwelcome. Dealing with behavior that makes the workplace hostile, intimidating or offensive requires that employees value and assess how their behavior affects others.

Many men are genuinely confused about what makes behavior sexual harassment. They ask sincerely, “Why can’t you just give me a list of what I can and cannot do? How can I possibly know what is offensive to everyone when everyone is different?”

That question needs to be answered. Typically, everyone interacts with a finite number of other employees on a daily basis. Each employee’s job is to find out and respect the personal boundaries of those specific people. Whether one has the interest, willingness and ability to alter one’s own behavior in order to improve someone else’s quality of life is a different question.

We have gone so far in making the point that sexual behavior is unacceptable in the workplace that most employees have few skills for dealing with it when it does occur. An effective complaint procedure, while a critical and necessary part of any sexual harassment policy, is insufficient for addressing employees’ daily concerns. Employees need to be trained in how to resolve the common, normal, predictable and sometimes harassing sexual activity that occurs in the workplace on a daily basis including:

•How to communicate that particular behaviour is unwanted, offensive, hostile or intimidating and to communicate without drama, judgments or threats.

•How to ask a fellow employee to stop the particular behavior.

•How to respond to a request to stop without defensiveness, excuses or argument.

•How to ask a fellow employee whether particular behavior is welcome, offensive or intimidating.

Employees need regular, safe opportunities to have candid conversations about personal boundaries and concerns about being heard and respected.

These are not instant remedies. They are a prescription for causing a major shift in how workers communicate, express respect for one another and create a civil environment in which sexual activity and expression exist.

Once employees begin to have the power and skills to address difficult sexual situations among one another in real-time in the moments they occur and shortly thereafter, formal complaints will begin to involve primarily serious behaviour, repeat offenders and abuses by predatory supervisors. Organizations can begin to devote their prevention efforts to the few employees who cause serious problems and to restoring civility in workplaces where sexual activity has been allowed to run rampant.

Linda Gordon Howard is the New York-based author of The Sexual Harassment Handbook, published in 2007 by Career Press. She can be reached at lghoward@acn.net.

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