How Company Culture Helps Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Companies whose leaders communicate that preventing sexual harassment is a high-priority issue for their companies have employees who take the issue more seriously, research by sociologists at Stanford University suggests. The findings support the long-standing view that organizational culture is the best predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment. 
“One of the myths about implementing good sexual harassment policy is that it has to be complicated,” says Racheal Hebert, CEO of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling and consulting on issues related to sexual assault.  “Work cultures have become very accustomed to risk mitigation and the fear of a litigious employee that they tend to approach sexual harassment as an employee responsibility.”

Most company policies focus on the employee reporting these behaviors, but this approach fails to address the general code of conduct and core values of the company that are instrumental in preventing instances of sexual harassment, Hebert says. 

Here are three steps company leaders can take to create a culture that helps prevents sexual harassment in their workplace.

Engage in Proactive Dialogue

Companies need to create opportunities for dialogue and discussion around these complicated issues based on a core set of values. “It's important for organizations to take a proactive approach and initiate these uncomfortable conversations about what is harassment is,” says Nikki Larchar, co-founder of simplyHR, a company that provides sexual harassment training. “Opening it up for discussion and allowing employees to feel comfortable and free to have those conversations is really key to preventing those issues before they're occurring,” she says.

You also have to provide meaningful, engaging training on the issue. “We’ve all been subject to a lot of poor HR harassment training,” says Tina Todd, PHR ®,  co-founder of simplyHR. Typically, it’s watch some cheesy, irrelevant videos, give the legal definition of harassment, remind everyone not to harass each other and then have everyone sign a form saying they’ve completed the training.”

“That doesn't give employees the resources they need, though,” Todd says. “Realistically, it is going to happen. How do we prepare our employees to know what their resources are and how to stand up for themselves and their peers if and when they encounter it?” 

Companies that embrace a team mindset when it comes to creating a company culture and engaging in these discussions are more successful at these efforts, Hebert says. “Leaders need to signal, we're all responsible for upholding these core values and engaging in this dialogue because it is really an issue of making everyone feel safe and welcome and valued,” she says.

Avoid Superstar Bias

Recent high-profile allegations against people at the top of their industries for ongoing sexual harassment of employees make us question how such blatant examples of bad behavior were swept under the rug for so long.  “But we often see superstar bias. Organizations and management will choose to forgive the really poor performance if an individual is a top performer,” Larcher says.

Companies sometimes make a calculation of how to handle a particular allegation based on the perceived value of the individual for the company, Hebert says. “They might say, this employee who's being accused of sexual harassment is our top salesperson and the person making the allegation is a good employee but not really on a management track,” she says. “They may question, which employee is gonna be a bigger cost to the organization to lose?”

But this approach is not only unethical -- it can also damage productivity, morale and company brand. “Employees are looking at what behaviors are being rewarded or ignored,” says Larcher. 

Consistently applying the same policies across the board regardless of the individuals involved sends a strong message to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. “It's really important to be unbiased when employees commit policy infractions and claims against an individual,” Hebert says. “Companies need to apply consistent practices whether it's an entry level person or a top performer.”

Send the Right Messages
Ultimately, company culture comes down to leadership. Leaders need to send the right messages to their employers about the company’s stance on sexual harassment. “Employees are very aware of what leadership is doing,” Larchar says. “They look to leaders for setting the precedent and for the example of how an organization's going to handle these issues. 

Company leaders should take an active part in the dialogue around sexual harassment. They can’t avoid the issue. “The CEO needs to participate in the conversation,” says Hebert. “The first thing they can do is show up. Show up to the training, be part of the discussion.”

Transparently handling issues of sexual harassment also shows that leaders are committed to maintaining a safe workplace for all employees. “A common response whenever there is an incident of sexual harassment is to keep it confidential,” Todd says. But when leaders are transparent about the investigation of an allegation, just as they would be about other types of misconduct or crimes such as fraud, it helps show that they take sexual harassment allegations seriously, Todd says.

 “In the end, it's the CEO's responsibility to make sure their employees are safe,” Hebert says.