The news is flooded with reports of sexual harassment and victims finally coming forward after decades, for some, of silence. Why? Having cut my teeth on sexual harassment laws and regulations since the early 1980s and watched its ups and downs, one dynamic has remained consistent. Victims do not come forward when the harassment first occurs. Employers invest in training programs for all employees to educate on what sexual harassment is and what the complaint process is and assure employees that retaliation is forbidden. It is that last aspect of the program that simply does not ring true for many victims, which ensures that they will not break their silence and sets the employer up for a workplace problem that could have been shut down at its outset. This blog post addresses how to break employee silence.
Most employees fully understand what sexual harassment is. They know when they are being harassed. To be specific, sexual harassment is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is used as a term or condition of employment, is used to make decisions about employment or employment conditions or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive working environment. It can occur on or off the job-site.
Employees understand the steps in a grievance procedure and that they can square off against the harasser, who may have more power than the victim or who may be more valuable to the business as a high revenue generator. The imbalance of power scenarios are endless. The setup is the same. Typically, true sexual harassment is about power. I say “true sexual harassment” because there are cases of questionable motives of victims that come forward and whether the attention is unwelcome.
So, how does an employer address a grievance procedure that is perceived as skewed against the less powerful victim and why do these perceptions matter? Taking the last question first, the perceptions matter because of what employees have at stake when they report sexual harassment. Many employees fear losing their jobs and being labeled “unemployable” because they spilled the beans. The first question involves revising the grievance procedure.
Most grievance procedures start with the employee complaining to his or her supervisor, who may be the harasser. If the supervisor is the offending party, then the employee complains to the next level supervisor, who probably promoted or hired the immediate supervisor in the position over the victim. This is not a formula for encouraging employees to report sexual harassment, and employers should be doing more because they want to immediately shut down the offensive behaviors. So, what is a good formula?
I call on my experience as a complaint handler for an institution of higher education where I had the opportunity to regularly work with victims of sexual harassment. They came forward because it was my job to listen and resolve their complaints. Employers should have a designated person who handles and resolves these types of complaints as part of their jobs. When it is part of an employee’s job to handle and resolve sexual harassment complaints, that employee’s performance is gauged by proficiency at that task.
Secondly, sexual harassment victims came forward because I handled their complaints anonymously. Harassers were confronted with confirmed facts and were informed that such behaviors were in violation of federal and state laws. They were instructed that the behaviors had to stop or action would be taken, up to and including termination. The standard response was a demand for the name of the victim and denial. Importantly, should the facts reveal the victim’s identity, strong warnings about retaliation with a guarantee of termination were provided. At that stage of the process, the harasser had not lost a job and received fair warning, and the employer had not lost an employee in whom it had invested. A problem that could have compounded was shut down. The goal for everyone was to stop the behavior. If the behavior continued, the warned employee was terminated, as promised.
The bottom line is that no procedure to address sexual harassment will be effective if the company does not take resolution and eradication of such behaviors seriously. Employee perception of the process means everything when they fear job and reputation loss. A very effective approach is to designate an enforcer of the sexual harassment policy, who will resolve the issue and keep the victim’s integrity intact.