Sexual Harassment as an organizational reality has taken on a life of its own. Many organizations have crafted broad policies, established sexual harassment investigation teams and launched sexual harassment prevention training, all with varying degrees of success. However, most organizations are not yet developing clear organizational culture-change tools. Rather, they rely on “training” and rarely, if ever, look at what in the culture allows sexual harassment to thrive. They regard sexual harassment as a series of events rather than cultural atrophy. This is a fatal mistake.
Organizations are still in a steep learning curve and like other long-term approaches to change, there are significant challenges, problems, and pitfalls. Highlighted in this article are ten reasons why sexual harassment prevention approaches fail and some recommendations about how to avoid the pitfalls.
1: Failure to address the deeper issues of sexual harassment and organizational culture
Effective sexual harassment strategies uncover and address the reasons why individuals and groups are systematically marginalized in organizations. Discriminatory behavior that oppresses individuals translates into oppressive practices within the organization. Successful sexual harassment strategies expose these practices and require the organization to change its behavior and culture.
In order to address the issues, many organizations undertake audits or scans that alert them to real and perceived issues of discrimination and bias. While this approach has some merit, it is often ineffective because many audits ask questions that ignore the deeper issues of bias, exclusion, and power. Sexual Harassment Prevention approaches that do not address power dynamics and the role they play in nurturing predatory behavior are by their very nature superficial. If an organization desires success, then it must address power dynamics as the fuel that fans the flames at the individual, interpersonal, group and organizational levels.
At its core, Sexual Harassment is about power. Sex is irrelevant.
2: Failure to view Sexual Harassment Prevention as systemic change
Effective Sexual Prevention strategies will change an organization at its core. This means changes in the power dynamics and organizational structure; the way decisions are made; and the way the organization conducts the business of people, leadership, and accountability. The way the organization lives its commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy, the contracts they negotiate with senior executives which allows them to leave the organization with significant compensation despite sexual harassment, the way that publicly traded companies often hide settlement payments from the SEC in key disclosures and others. Also, the way that publicly traded companies fail to be transparent with regulatory bodies such as the SEC on the reality of sexual harassment in their environments.
In my experience, despite the fact that sexual harassment has been around forever and a day, few organizations link sexual harassment and systemic change as critical to organizational success. They often think in terms of small changes but cannot imagine changes in the power structure, for example. Rarely do they expect a full-scale revolution in organizational thinking and norms driven by a commitment to eradicating sexual harassment.
Some sexual harassment prevention approaches generate only cosmetic change; that is, the organization conducts training, reissues its policy and lightly rebukes offenders. However, behind the scenes, little change in discriminatory practices has taken place. Some organizational cultures are so embedded that victims of sexual harassment will continue to be marginalized. And organizations will continue to settle claims of sexual harassment as a cost of doing business. The predators, assuming they have enough champions and contribute heavily to the bottom line will be rewarded and many will suffer in silence.
Often, organizations champion their sexual harassment prevention “program” but make it clear that certain things will not or cannot change because of tradition or some other reason. If this is an organization’s perspective, any initiative it launches will benefit the predator and punish the accuser.
3: Failure to conduct comprehensive investigations
My purpose here is not to excoriate the H.R. Department or outside investigators. It is to point out the reality that in my experience many HR Departments believe that they are beholden to management and that their job is to “protect” the organization. In my experience, too many H.R. Departments micromanage the investigations and in some cases, intervene where they should not. The result often is a watered-down investigation by the investigator. I understand the quandary that HR Departments find themselves in between a thorough investigation and their management role. However, they need to resolve this dilemma in a way that does not lead to continuous predatory behavior. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty.
Outside Counsel who represent management in other matters, but are called in to investigate sexual harassment claims, are suspect. One simply cannot serve two masters. Outside Counsel represents management interests period. Thus, an investigation that they conduct should be viewed through that lens. One need not be a lawyer to conduct a sexual harassment investigation. One does, however, have to understand organizational culture and the very real impact sexual harassment has on organizational performance.
Outside counsel who conduct investigations should understand their role. They protect the company not by covering up what happened but by exposing what happened so they can come to resolution.
Many of the investigations I have been called in to review are incompetent at worse and amateurish at best. The investigators are not trained to ask the right questions, they often make faulty conclusions, they don’t understand organizational change and fail to properly apply the law and the organization’s policy.
Investigators need to understand how to uncover facts, they need to know how to ask questions and what questions to ask, they need to know how to draw conclusions and inferences among other things. Of course, the should know the law and the organization’s policy.
4: Failure to address systemic issues
All too often, sexual harassment prevention policies and practices are designed only to address issues relative to the individual level. That is, how and why individuals are affected by sexual harassment issues and the associated ramifications. They do not, however, address the systemic issues — an organization’s practices, policies and procedures — and how they operate to exclude subordinated groups. Additionally, they do not address the unwritten, informal rules the informal systems of power, control and mobility inside an organization.
Often an organization has a “zero tolerance” policy yet sexual harassment is rampant. We should all know that zero tolerance does not mean zero occurrence.
I am currently working with a publicly traded company that has been lauded for its zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. Yet the environment is so sexually charged that women only stay an average of one year. The HR Department informed me that it is in a high turnover sector. This is a ridiculous statement since on average men stay at the organization for 9 years or more. My talk with the Board including the CEO is simple.
By addressing the formal and informal oppressive policies, practices and procedures, the possibility of eradicating sexual harassment exists. Moreover, they have a fiduciary duty to do so. It is high time that we speak truth to power.
5: Failure to clearly and comprehensively articulate why an organization is devoting time, effort and resources to sexual harassment prevention training
Whenever an organization rolls out training it must build “buy-in” and clearly explain to key audiences why now and what is in it for them, as well as the business. This is especially important with sexual harassment because it comes with emotional and political baggage that other initiatives often do not. In fact, the goal should not be “training” it should be education. This is not a distinction without a difference. Training is rote while education is preventative.
A cohesive strategy should address in plain language the importance of addressing predatory behavior to the organization, not the world at large. This means that the senior leadership team should have had frank, open conversations about why sexual harassment prevention in their organization and why now. Failure to fully educate senior leadership, who will ultimately be responsible for championing organization-wide sexual harassment, eradication will result in the initiative’s marginalization from its inception and will almost certainly lead to defeat.
Many organizations skip this step. The result is often an intellectual and completely legal rationale for sexual harassment which generates intellectual stimulation but lacks sufficient foundational fortitude to eliminate predatory behavior,
6: Failure to hit offenders in the pocket.
Victims of sexual harassment do not have the power and influence to effect change, therefore they must recognize the critical role that those who do play in organizational change. Many have argued that terminating a senior leader for “cause” will be enough. The cause is vague, overly broad and ineffective.
What organizations should do is to claw back compensation from offenders, terminate offenders, report potential crimes to law enforcement and publicly traded companies should stop hiding sexual harassment settlement payments in SEC filings.
7: Poor sexual harassment prevention education.
On one end of the spectrum, sexual harassment is simply an overview of the policy, the law, and the reporting requirements.
At the other end, training is criticized as too boring and repetitive. Sexual Harassment prevention training must be conducted respectfully and not be used as a subterfuge for personal or political agendas.
Effective sexual harassment prevention education should confront the problems, not the people, by exposing behaviors and issues related to oppression and predatory behavior at the individual, interpersonal, group and organizational levels. It should help participants to understand themselves and others and to build skills to address these sometimes-uncomfortable issues. The sessions should not humiliate or shame people into acting. Rather, through a well-designed methodology, it should allow them to understand the fundamental flaws of oppressive behavior for themselves and those who are victimized.
When planning to educate groups, first decide on the objective, what success will look like and how it will be measured. Poor education can cause more damage than no education at all.
8: Lack of authentic, organizational leadership
Many organizational leaders can speak articulately about preventing sexual harassment but lack the knowledge, tenacity, and courage to affect the large-scale organizational intervention needed to make the eradication of sexual harassment an organizational reality. This requires a willingness to assess the degree of risk a leader is willing to take and the ramifications of these risks.
Given the nature of sexual harassment, one cannot lead on this issue without significant risk. Authentic leadership requires leading by example and making decisions reflective of that leadership. The authentic leader not only articulates why sexual harassment prevention is vital to organizational life but also, he or she believes it and acts on it without hesitation.
9: Selecting incompetent investigators
Just about every credible profession has published standards and credentialing. The rationale is that standards and credentialing lead to consistency and credibility in the practice of that profession. In the field of sexual harassment prevention there is no recognized certification for investigators, therefore organizations need to develop their own criteria. The EEOC has published guidelines that are helpful from a foundational level.
Organizations committed to sexual harassment prevention as organizational change have an obligation to select investigators with a stellar reputation, proven track record, and appropriate credentials. Moreover, such investigators should go through a certification process with organizational culture and change as its core.
10: Lack of accountability
Organizational leaders have yet to devise a credible way of holding people accountable for preventing sexual harassment. This accountability applies to everyone — from the board of directors to the CEO, to managers, employees, leaders and HR professionals. Accountability requires that we say what we will do, do it as promised, do it competently and be called to task if we do not.
People in organizations should be evaluated on how well they contribute to a harassment-free working environment that provides dignity for everyone; how effectively they seek out and cultivate sexual harassment prevention in organizational life; how effectively they claw back payments made to sexual harassers who have found to be in violation of sexual harassment.
Executives who have presided over departments in which sexual harassment have occurred and they have not addressed it should have their base compensation and bonuses and or stock and other options severely impacted.
Moreover, they should be put on performance warning with the real possibility of termination.
By establishing accountability, we can prevent the pitfall of having sexual harassment become mostly ignored.
Dr. Christopher Metzler is an internationally recognized expert on employment discrimination. He has investigated hundreds of sexual harassments, consults globally on the topic and serves as an expert witness on sexual harassment prevention. He is the former Senior Associate Dean for Human Resources at Georgetown University and created the Master’s in H.R. at Georgetown.
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