Shining a spotlight into the dark, hidden corners of a social problem will help us eliminate it, which is why movements like #MeToo can be so beneficial and exhilarating. However, the fact these movements exist in the first place can also be disheartening, particularly as we grapple with the overwhelming scope of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Furthermore, work interactions in the #MeToo era can be intimidating for victims of sexual harassment. The inevitable backlash to the movement undermines important steps toward improving working conditions for everyone.
But work environments don’t have to be this way. Taking a positive, proactive approach to combatting sexual harassment will help establish appropriate behaviors, improve the conditions of the workplace, and give everyone a standard vocabulary for discussing concerns in the past and new problems as they arise.
Although illegal and inappropriate behavior should never be excused, opening honest and frank lines of communication will provide necessary aid to all employees. Companies can also help those who are not vulnerable — those who might otherwise be swayed by bad-faith arguments — to see sexual harassment as the problem and plague it has always been. Companies can also help these people see that eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace will create a comfortable environment where everyone can feel safe.
Leadership Needs to Set the Tone
The simplest step is often the most powerful. When leaders emphasize that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and clearly outline where victims can find safe harbors, they empower and support those who are vulnerable.
Startups, in particular, can develop problems with sexual harassment. A small company run by a group of friends may casually adopt agreed-upon standards for discourse, behavior, and subject matter. These standards could work for private conversations but may not be appropriate in a work setting. When the company achieves success and begins to grow, that culture of permissive behavior can haunt the organization for years and be extremely difficult to eliminate.
However, for all employees at all levels to feel comfortable, every company from the newest startup to the biggest corporation needs to put any casual or overt acceptance of illegal and harmful behaviors firmly in the past. In short, companies need to build cultures of intolerance for bad behavior. This tone must be set at the very top, starting with the C-suite, for it to have maximum impact across the entire organization.
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Employees Must Understand the Ingredients for Disaster
Empowering everyone to speak up when they encounter harmful behavior is one step that can bring an end to workplace sexual harassment. In order to accomplish this, companies need to help people understand the patterns of behavior that lead to harassment and provide safe processes for reporting.
The ingredients for disaster are not always obvious and can be very subtle. Outlining clear policies about late nights, shifting expectations, and close contact will give vulnerable employees structures to rely on if they encounter these circumstances. Making sure people know it’s okay to speak up is vital as well. When people are able to voice their concerns, they can help others spot developing problems before it is too late.
Conversations about the scope, impact, and prevalence of sexual harassment are vital for moving any workplace culture forward. Although our primary concern should always be for victims of harassment, these conversations can also create honest confusion among people who may not understand the challenges or experience these unacceptable behaviors firsthand. We often fall into the trap of blaming the victims and policing their behavior — how they dress, to whom they speak, and what they do. Shifting that mindset will be essential to creating safe and supportive environments for everyone.
Companies Should Conduct In-Person Training
Improvements in online tools have led to the widespread creation and adoption of online training programs for most subjects. Many companies now conduct nearly all of their training online, including sexual harassment training.
However, as much as these tools may save companies time and money, moving sexual harassment training online may not be the most effective decision. Static examples and lessons are useful for many subjects, but for a topic as charged and potentially problematic as sexual harassment, companies should consider in-person training instead. Live environments enable trainers to customize content and address real-world concerns.
Face-to-face conversations about identifying, avoiding, and reporting sexual harassment will help trained professionals establish levels of engagement and determine the overall impact on a company. In-person training also facilitates more powerful and effective conversations between men and women.
Educating employees about sexual harassment and empowering them to take action will eliminate problems and create supportive environments for victims. Furthermore, this education and empowerment will also move those inclined to harass to the margins, resulting in more people feeling more comfortable at work. Changing the cultural mindset from blaming victims to supporting them is a rocky road, but one we must traverse in order to bring true equality into the workplace.
Courtney Harrison is chief human resources officer at OneLogin.