Act Now to Bolster Protections Against Sexual Harassment

Communication, training of leaders and employees, and board involvement are all key to compliance programs meant to guard against sexual harassment.

High-profile sexual harassment cases seem to be increasingly in the news, but compliance programs can do more to clamp down on elements of corporate culture that cause and perpetuate sexual harassment. 

Employees in strong cultures are 1.5 times more likely to report misconduct they observe

“The failure to properly address deep-seated cultural issues is what allows sexual harassment to thrive — leading to personal trauma to the individuals involved and to those who witness the behavior, not to mention public scrutiny and costly payouts for the organization” says Mara Lindokken, Principal, Research, Gartner.

Read more: 10 Truths Compliance Must Know About Corporate Culture

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What enables sexual harassment to thrive?

These three cultural elements are especially key in enabling sexual harassment:

  • Power disparities. Less-senior employees can be vulnerable when working closely alongside high-status individuals.
  • Lack of awareness. Employees can be unaware of how to recognize and report sexual harassment within their organization, so claims go unheard and unaddressed.
  • Lack of diversity. Workplaces with a lack of diversity — gender, race, age, education and sexual preference — are more prone to disenfranchise and leave underrepresented employees vulnerable. 

Take these four actions to help mitigate the conditions that allow sexual harassment to go unchecked in the workplace.

1. Keep communications current and active

Compliance programs must leverage communications tailored to different audiences (position levels, locations, languages, etc.) that enable the organization to respond quickly and definitively to incidents, investigations and firings.

Embed messaging about organizational intolerance for sexual harassment and resources for reporting in other compliance communications or guidance, such as a code of conduct. It pays dividends to signal from the top that sexual harassment isn’t tolerated and that reporting is encouraged. Increased trust leads to better reporting rates: Employees in strong cultures are 1.5 times more likely to report misconduct they observe. 

Determine the optimal level of transparency you would like to provide employees into the investigation results or processes to maintain consistent messaging.

2. Train leaders 

Managers are key in communicating and modeling appropriate behavior. Eighty-nine percent of employees will rely on their managers for more information about how to respond to risks and two-thirds of employees report misconduct to their managers. However, many managers lack adequate training and feel unprepared to handle some types of misconduct or employee concerns. 

Ramping up manager training is relatively quick and easy — especially compared to measures such as adding a hotline and ombudsperson, which provide additional ways for employees to report but come with a learning curve for use.

Design detailed training that is relevant to managers’ daily tasks, provides language for both intervention and report receiving, and makes the process for handling sexual harassment reports, including escalation criteria, clear. Share statistics with leaders about manager influence and employee reliance to drive home the importance of the manager role.

3. Train bystanders

Standard sexual harassment training teaches employees what sexual harassment looks like, how to report it and how their organization expects them to behave. Bystander training teaches employees to overcome their natural resistance to action to mitigate sexual harassment, protect victims and even file a report if needed. 

Participants who participate in bystander training are more likely to intervene in cases of sexual harassment than those who don’t. Peer influence strengthens the culture of integrity by reducing the frequency of misconduct and strengthening trust between coworkers.

Customize your program based on scenarios that resonate with employees based on the realities of their positions — and situations in which they are likely to find themselves. Use a mix of text descriptions, images and videos to demonstrate what a strong scenario looks like.

4. Keep the board actively involved

A coherent sexual harassment policy driven by an engaged board must outline zero-tolerance behaviors among senior leadership from the outset — and publicly affirms that a senior leader must be fired for perpetuating or hiding a culture of sexual harassment. 

Have the board work alongside the CEO and senior leadership to “set the tone” for behaviors, zero-tolerance actions (such as relationships with subordinates or suppliers) and remediation actions.

Review relevant guidance regarding board diversity to ensure that your board is meeting rising expectations from stakeholders. These will minimize the homogenizing conditions that are shown to increase the likelihood of sexual harassment.

Read more: How to Brief the Board on Sexual Harassment

Gartner for Legal and Compliance Leaders clients can download a presentation on these solutions to Getting Ahead of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, and can read Show Employees That Misconduct Claims Are Taken Seriously.

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