With all the laws and lawsuits, why is sexual harassment still an issue at work? Everyone has sat through ongoing training. Everyone understands the rules. Yet here I am in HR still dealing with this misconduct. I could dwell on the sorry state of humanity; rather, I aim to pinpoint why this remains a problem.
Training and the law continue to put the onus on the complainant. Official training and the law state that if you’re being sexually harassed, you should tell the harasser that you don’t like being harassed and would like the harasser to stop. Okay. Does anyone else understand how out of touch with reality this advice is? So let’s say your male boss is harassing you. Since you were probably raised in a social construct in which men of a certain age consider sexual harassment a form of flirtation, you will likely try to forgive and forge ahead. I’ve heard many educated women react in this manner. They like and need their jobs. Furthermore, they don’t want any trouble and certainly don’t want any negative attention. Most mature people will put up with a whole lot before inviting negative attention. And since it’s impossible to conduct a thorough investigation without compromising confidentiality, thereby piling on negative attention, most great employees will clam up and find another job. Not only won’t they officially complain, they won’t say anything to the harasser’s face either. However, the second the harasser turns around, they’ll roll their eyes and make a gagging noise. I understand. Why would anyone bother trying to reason with an unreasonable person? My definition of unreasonable would be someone who continues to sexually harass others at work. This person is clearly daft without a whiff of self awareness. In short, creeps generally don’t know they’re creepy, and there’s no telling them otherwise.
Anything having to do with “sex” is still taboo in the U.S.A. I don’t know how many centuries will have to pass before we climb out from under the Puritans’ shadow. This history has made it difficult for us as a society to deal with some truly degenerate behavior. So, for years, sexual harassment went on without anyone wanting to talk about it. It just wasn’t something you discussed—especially at work.
It’s not always about sex. In many cases, it’s about power. This isn’t discussed in most training and needs to be. The worst offenses—quid pro quo sexual harassment—is all about power. Let’s acknowledge that some in power shouldn’t be in power. Rather than using their ability to make important organization-building decisions, they yield it like a javelin to harm others.
There should be stronger consequences for egregious sexual harassment. For the worst sexual harassers, they generally face lawsuits and termination. This isn’t enough in my opinion. If you have wielded your power at work to gain sexual favors, you are a criminal. And you should be arrested. I know some will disagree with me, but I have seen behavior that would make your skin crawl, behavior that goes beyond a few dirty jokes gone wrong. No one should be able to get away with this. What happens, though, is that harassers continue employment at another company, and probably another company after that, where they’re free to sexually harass a fresh group of employees.
Human Resources should have extensive and mandatory training on how to address sexual harassment. Assuming the company has a clear zero-tolerance policy, HR needs to know exactly how to investigate harassment and cannot shy away from sending a clear message to all employees that it will not be tolerated. If employees know the company is consistent in its dealings with sexual harassment, they will be less likely to harass and more likely to come forward should it occur.