While sexual harassment in the workplace has always been a problem, recently the floodgates have opened as more and more women – and some men – are encouraged to tell their stories. In some cases, these alleged events occurred years and even decades ago and were repeated over a period of time.
Why did not victims or witnesses speak earlier? Why does it seem that people in positions of power, knowing these acts, have not managed to intervene?
Sexual harassment at work develops in a culture of silence, but companies must understand the risks of promoting this type of environment.
Root Causes of a Culture of Silence
Several factors contribute to a workplace where sexual harassment is an open secret. According to S. Chris Edmonds, founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, and author of "The Culture Engine", this is not a new phenomenon.
"Evidence of the culture of silence regarding sexual harassment and aggression can be found as far back as biblical times – and probably further afield," says Edmonds. "A culture of silence is driven by power and control: somebody in power wants the body of another, so the powerful person threatens him with loss of employment, loss of respect, career loss, etc. "
While Hollywood has dominated the headlines in workplace harassment exposure, Edmonds warns that this type of behavior is ubiquitous in all industries, including small businesses, multinationals and all that. lies between the two.
"Stories of unwanted sexual attention that draw the attention of the media do not mean that it's about" new "problems or problems" of one's own. only bad guy, "he explains.
But how has this behavior been greeted with such deafening silence for so long? Robert Green, CCO of Ripple Collective, thinks that the acceptance of culture is a contributing factor.
"There is an inherent bias in our vision of" leadership "that points to an archetype of" charging hard, "" hard "and" hard ". "Take no prisoners" who produced leaders who grab what they want, no matter the consequences, "he says.
And, it seems that there are no negative consequences on their actions.
"Their behavior is rewarded with bigger bonuses, raises and promotions, and that's why new leadership is not enough," says Green. He says we need to change the belief that only certain types of personality have the chemistry of the business needed to be leaders.
Why victims and spectators remain silent
A person about to be assaulted in a public place or a spectator witnessing a pickpocket in action would probably not hesitate to speak or do anything. But the dynamics of the workplace is different.
"Human nature, organizational dynamics and legal standards come into play here," says Jamie Prenkert, a professor of business law at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and assistant vice-principal at university and university affairs at IU Bloomington. "Victims of harassment are often the subject of a cost-benefit analysis when they decide to keep quiet or to make something public."
According to Prenkert, former Attorney General of the US Commission for Equal Employment Opportunity, employees know that going out in public can disrupt their lives and give rise to retaliation.
"Victims are often in low-power positions and voices, especially in relation to the perpetrator, and organizations are sometimes structured to discourage reporting," he says.
The workplace legal standard of appropriate behavior may be cloudy, and Prenkert states that an act that demonstrates poor judgment may not result in the employer's liability for harassment at the workplace. job.
"While the federal Sexual Harassment Act encourages employers to prevent and correct harassment, this standard has largely evolved into more pro-forma political and training requirements, rather than requiring more proactive measures. to solve deeply rooted cultural problems, harassment, "he says.
In addition, Prenkert believes that there are other ways for victims, bystanders and witnesses to attempt to rationalize their silence. For example, he says that people tend to avoid claiming victimization, so they might claim that they "misunderstood" the actions of the abuser. Spectators might decide that it is not up to them to report what happened.
Four types of silence
Dr. Rob Bogosian, founder and director of RVB Associates, Inc., and co-author of "Breaking Corporate Silence: How High Influence Leaders Create Voice Cultures," says his research has revealed four types of silence about the workplace. ]
Defensive: This type of silence is rooted in fear, and silence is used as a response to the perception of blatant leadership practices. Employees use silence as a way to stay safe in an environment they consider a threat.
Offensive: This type of silence is rooted in the pursuit of justice. Offensive silence is motivated by retaliation. When an employee perceives leadership or a corporate action as unfair or unjust, he may determine that silence is a way to level the playing field.
Futility: This type of silence is rooted in apathy and cynicism. Employees who tried to participate by speaking in the past and who did not have recognition or change as a result determined that speaking did not make any difference and that their voice did not make any difference. no merit.
Social: This type of silence is motivated by protectionism, which is the desire to maintain close peer relationships. Employees can look away if they see a colleague doing something wrong, even if it poses a risk to the company.
Risks to Business
Sexual harassment in the workplace is not limited to the offender and the accuser. Companies can also be affected by these charges. According to Stephanie Redlener, General Manager of Talent Strategy for Innovation Consulting at DDG and founder of Lioness, there are two times when organizations are most at risk.
"The first moment is prevention: when a company does not take the necessary steps to prevent these actions from happening, employees will not feel safe in this business and, in turn, it will will become a dangerous business "
Redlener says that the second moment is the reaction.
"When these things happen, it's up to the organization to bravely answer instead of scapegoat, blame or conceal the incident." If companies do not react properly, she says that they are likely to spend years of good work. in smoke because of the bad actions of an employee.
Some companies believe that confidentiality agreements can save them from the actions of their ill-intentioned employees, but that's not necessarily true. Steven Adler is a lawyer at Mandelbaum Salsburg and co-chair of the firm's labor and employment law group.
"Much has been written and discussed about the companies' use of confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements to sweep the harassment complaints under the rug," says Adler.
He believes that these shares are designed to protect the reputation of a company and can help settle claims without a lawsuit.
"However, repeated cases of sexual harassment, or even blatant conduct, can be devastating to a business." In addition to the financial implications of the lawsuits for sexual harassment, Adler warns that these organizations may have difficulty hiring new employees. and experience low morale and high turnover rates. They can also lose the loyalty of their customers.
Mr. Prenkert agrees, and although he believes that federal and state legal liability standards are not as effective as they should be, companies can always be held responsible by other means.
"As we have seen recently, when authors have a public profile and the victims have the right to claim a public platform or are numerous enough to attract attention, public relations may be ignored or allowed, the authors may be significant. "
However, he admits that not all victims fall into one of these categories. "For example, the isolated teenage girl who is being harassed by her supervisor in a fast-food restaurant in the suburbs, or the administrative assistant who is subjected to a barrage of inappropriate behavior on the part of the middle manager of a company. d & # 39; insurance. "
How businesses can protect the workplace and their employees
The best way for companies to protect themselves and their workers is to change the culture. Edmonds explains, "If culture is left to chance, those who aspire to power and control will exert their influence and the culture of silence will impose." Instead, he says companies must be proactive and intentional. to create a culture that treats employees. with respect and dignity.
This includes verbal expression and demonstration by actions that sexual harassment is prohibited.
"Make sure everyone understands that the company has a" one-size-fits-all "approach to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, whether the harasser is a lower-level employee or the largest manufacturer. rain. He points out that this message must come from the top of the organization.
Michelle Lee Flores, a lawyer in labor and employment law at Cozen O & # 39; Connor, provides 5 practical steps businesses can take to protect their employees and their workplace:
Review your harassment prevention policy and confirm that it accurately identifies who to contact and how employees can report allegations of inappropriate conduct in the workplace. Do you have another "anonymous" phone number for reports?
Immediately consider providing workplace training on the prevention of sexual harassment, the prevention of abusive conduct and the maintenance of a respectful workplace.
Consider updating definitions of inappropriate conduct to include more modern examples of potentially harassing behavior and / or sexual insensitivity, for example, the use of emoji at work that could lead to Ambiguity of meaning (like a smiley) CAPS ("screaming").
Prepare for the (very real) possibility that an employee will report to HR or, in a public forum, to the alleged harassment of a colleague or senior officer. Consider possible ways to let you know about the information and short and long term recommended responses. Consider having an advisor or an employment advisor to help you in your action plans.
If you are considering the creation of an internal alternative mechanism allowing employees to report directly to a board of directors, or an advisory board to deal with such claims, seriously consider including at least one practicing lawyer in labor law.
This piece was originally published on The Economist's Executive Learning Blog blog here. Its author, Terri, Williams is a freelance writer who covers leadership topics for The Economist Careers Network.