Harvard Business Review Reveals Why Workplace Sexual Harassment Persists

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Their research began with a simple question: If 98% of organizations in the United States have a sexual harassment policy, why does sexual harassment continue to be such a persistent and devastating problem in the American workplace? As evidenced by recent headlines regarding ongoing sexual harassment in the National Park Service, Uber, and Fox News, it seems clear that sexual harassment policies have not stopped the problem they were designed to address.

Two bodies of research provided them with a possible direction as they explored the relationship between sexual harassment policies and outcomes.

First, scholars convincingly argue that sexual harassment is embedded in organizational culture.

Second, organizational cultures are embedded in a larger national culture in which men have traditionally been granted privileges over women.

They found that the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy. Although the policy clearly focused on behaviors of sexual harassment, the participants almost universally claimed that the policy focused on perceptions of behaviors. Moreover, although the policy itself made clear that harassing behaviors were harassment regardless of either the gender or sexual orientation of the perpetrator or target, the employees focused almost exclusively on male-female heterosexual harassment. This shift is subtle but significant.

Sexual harassment policies are not just legal documents. They are also culturally important, meaning-making documents that should play a role in defining, preventing, and stopping sexual harassment in an organization. The findings from the study suggest very specific language that may be useful in sexual harassment policies:

  • Include culturally appropriate, emotion-laden language in sexual harassment policies. Our findings suggest that if you don’t add this language, organizational members will include their own. For example, adding language such as “Sexual harassment is a form of predatory sexual behavior in which a person targets other employees” frames the behavior such that alternative interpretations may be more difficult to make. Using terms such as “predatory” instead of “perpetrator” and “target” instead of “victim” can shape how organizational members interpret the policy. Although policies tend to be stripped of emotions, it is essential for policy creators to recognize that policy creation is one of the most emotion-laden activities that organizational leaders are asked to accomplish. Because sexual harassment is such an emotionally laden topic, the creation of sexual harassment policies becomes even more emotionally challenging.
  • Sexual harassment policies should include bystander interventions as a required response to predatory sexual behavior. Most policies place responsibility for reporting harassment exclusively on the target, which puts them in a vulnerable position. If they report the behavior, then they are likely to be viewed with suspicion by their colleagues, often becoming socially isolated from their coworkers. On the other hand, if they do not report the sexual harassment, then it is likely to continue unabated, creating harm for the targeted employee, and wider organizational ills, too. Mandating bystander intervention can relieve the target of their sole responsibility for reporting and stopping predatory sexual behavior, and rightly puts the responsibility of creating a healthier organizational culture on all members of the organization.

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