Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace – by Terry Howard

The American Diversity Report sat down with Terry Howard, Senior Associate at Diversity Wealth. The subject? Sexual harassment and the recent emergence of the issue in the media. We wanted to hear his thoughts on why this has emerged from the shadows and, most important, what the organization should do to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, what effective training programs look like and follow-up actions are critical.

ADR: Once again, sexual harassment has muscled its way back into the headlines thanks in part to the high profile exit of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News. Any initial thoughts?

HOWARD: Well, what tends to happen is that when someone like O’Reilly gets charged, sexual harassment is immediately back in the news. We saw the same thing immediately after the Clarence Thomas hearings decades ago. What this offers is an opportunity to think about the implications of the issue in the workplace.

ADR: So, what exactly is sexual harassment?

HOWARD: Simply, it is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. Some examples are repeated, degrading or offensive remarks, jokes, and gestures of a sexual nature. It is important to understand that sexual harassment is receiver-perceived.

ADR: Why on earth do ‘intelligent’ people harass?”

HOWARD: Unfortunately, the answer to that age-old question isn’t that simple. Its causes are complex, rooted in socialization, culture, societal gender expectations and psychology. Many say that the root of sexual harassment is power, control, territoriality and insecurity. When some feel threatened or rejected, or they have poor social skills, they harass. Sex is often a secondary motivation.

ADR: You mention culture. Are there cultural variables that may come into play when understanding and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?

HOWARD: Yes. When you add culture to the mix, things get murkier since some cultures may have defined expectations relative to treatment of women. But to be clear, if those cultural norms translate into discriminatory treatment in the workplace, non-discrimination laws and policies trump culture.

ADR: Is it safe to assume that the majority of harassment targets are women and aggressors men?

HOWARD: Sexual harassment happens to both women and men, although it happens more often to women. In 2008, only 16 percent of charges of sexual harassment received by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were filed by men. Although sexual harassment of men does occur, men are less likely to report the behavior because, in part, of a societal stigma that men “should enjoy it!” It’s also important to know that targets of harassment run the full gamut – young, old, well-educated, married, exempt, non-exempt, etc. – and it occurs in every function, field and in every culture. Harassment happens in our presence, behind our backs, during meetings, from customers, on business trips, in e-mail and in other ways and places. It happens male to female, female to male, male to male and female to female.

ADR: So what do you say to someone who dismisses “innocent” jokes as light humor without malicious intent?

HOWARD: First, the “intent” is secondary to the “impact” of the behavior. Although the intent may be to have a little fun, the impact on the target can be long-lasting and very damaging. Second, there’s the “secondary impact” – the signal to a third party that the behavior is not only acceptable, but expected. As damaging is the negative reputation of the supervisor or manager who either knows or should have known of the behavior and does nothing.

ADR: Let’s shift to your thoughts on training as a way to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

HOWARD: I first developed the workshop, “New Focus on Sexual Harassment in The Workplace” years ago and followed that with, “Sustaining a Harassment-Free Workplace” not long after. Well over 30,000 U.S. supervisors, managers and direct employees completed the training.

ADR: What is the difference between the two workshops?

HOWARD: New Focus” was built around gender. “Sustaining” was expanded to include other forms of harassment, including harassment based on age, race, religion and sexual orientation.

ADR: Can you tell us a bit more about the content of your workshops?

HOWARD: Sure. We tie the training to leadership development and retaining talent. Although they are designed for different audiences, all of the workshops share common core content including legal definitions, EEOC Guidelines, policies and the specific roles on the part of the organization, supervisors and managers, individual contributors and Human Resources in preventing and responding to harassment of any kind. From our experience short case studies and individual strategies work best including what to do if the “harasser” is a customer (see case study below) or comes from a different culture.

ADR: What else from your experience works best in minimizing harassment in the workplace?

HOWARD: I believe in the “systems” approach, and training is an element of that system. What I’ve observed over the years is that when harassment strikes the organization, word quickly spreads and fear and turmoil can result. Relationships can be put on edge. So it is important to put together a communication strategy to heal the organization.

ADR: Any parting thoughts?

HOWARD: A common mistake is to assume that the absence of complaints is proof that harassment in the workplace is not occurring. One thing that helps is to gather baseline data via an anonymous survey of the organization and using survey results to design training content and coaching for managers.

CASE STUDY: Rafael the Revenue Generator

Just about everyone around XYZ Corp. knows that Rafael, who is married and who leads one of their largest customer accounts, has an “eye for the ladies” and is known for asking out, making sexual comments and “accidentally” touching XYZ female account representatives when they visit his work location. Although several of the representatives said privately that they don’t like Rafael’s behavior, they’ve all put up with it because he represents a huge revenue generating account for XYZ. When word gets up to Victoria, Senior VP at XYZ, about Rafael behavior towards women, she consults you with advice as to what to do.
Tell us the best response and discuss the consequences of the action(s) you’d recommend in the Comments.

Editor’s Note: We want to hear about the conversations you’re having about sexual harassment in the workplace. Share those discussion and suggestions for future articles in the Comments.

Terry Howard

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