How can sexual misconduct be prevented in the workplace?

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What can be done to successfully prevent or reduce sexual misconduct in the workplace?

Sexual Violence Prevention programs have been established in workplaces for decades. But as a barrage of incident reports flood our news feeds and consciousness, those programs seem useless. What can be done to measurably diminish harassment, violence, and abuse in organizations and businesses? The extreme majority of offenders are men. The most likely (but not as extreme) targets are women. It seems to happen most often when someone closes a door.  

How can things change? Is awareness of the scope of assault and harassment enough to make an impact?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] released a report on harassment in the workplace in 2016. It starts off with these very important questions:

With legal liability long ago established, with reputational harm from harassment well known, with an entire cottage industry of workplace compliance and training adopted and encouraged for 30 years, why does so much harassment persist and take place in so many of our workplaces? And, most important of all, what can be done to prevent it? After 30 years – is there something we’ve been missing?

The report recommends a reboot on the type of training used, since the focus seems to be on preventing liability for the company or organization rather than preventing abuse. It suggests a propositions echoed across the blogsphere. Prevention starts at the top. Bystanders need to intervene. There must be true accountability of those who have committed the abuse.Will this really work?

How about that workplace?

Researchers at Kent State University and University of Texas studied workplaces in 2015, concluding that harassment can be normalized in a workplace or industry if women are seen as interlopers. Both the New York Times and Business Insider published stories about ‘Bro-culture’, the latter examining the multiple issues Uber has had lately. There have been floods of stories about tech companies’ frat boy cultures (moneycnn.com, and again, NY Times, Broadly/Vice, New Yorker, to link to a few). The fallout is that women-led start ups receive a tiny fraction of the funding that men-led startups attract.

It’s especially complex for female founders, as men control the vast majority of capital. 89% of those making investment decisions at the top 72 firms are male, according to one survey. And in 2016, VCs put $64.9 billion into male-founded startups, compared to $1.5 billion into female-founded startups, according to new data from PitchBook.

Scanning coverage and reactions to reports of sexual misconduct doesn’t turn up many practical suggestions outside of believe her and change starts at the top. Does that mean there are few other practical responses? One suggestion was to create a secure place for people to report harassment in the workplace, either on a website or dedicated phone line. If linked with a proactive Human Resources department, that might be a start.

SHRM, an organization for Human Resource Managers, recommends that both managers and employees have training on sexual misconduct, albeit separately. Many companies only train managers. 

There are some inescapable influences.

We are in a cultural moment where there are mixed reactions to sexual misconduct. Many narratives in movies and on television involve powerful men and women who lack any power, something reflected since the beginning of popular media (who doesn’t cringe these days when they hear the song, Thank Heaven for Little Girls?). Lauren Duca had a powerful insight when she wrote in Teen Vogue 

It is significant that many of the people who have been accused of predatory behavior are storytellers. Across TV and film, government, and the news, their perspectives have guided and directed our collective understanding of the world.

Weinstein, Cosby, Louis C.K., Spacey, Halperin, Ratner, Simmons, Woody Allen, and so many more have created or promoted stories that millions, maybe billions have consumed. Have their ways of wielding power normalized sexual misconduct to a degree in popular culture? This can also lead to a larger conversation about diversity in the media and most organizations and companies.

Hidden costs of sexual misconduct.

“The worst part of my whole encounter with Oreskes wasn’t the weird offers of room service lunch or the tongue kiss but the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition,” she said.  NPR’s top editor placed on leave after accusations of sexual harassment, Washington Post 10/31/17

The fallout for targets of sexual harassment extends past the act(s). Targets become tired of being targets and may leave not just the workplace but the industry. Rebuffing or reporting misconduct frequently leads to retaliation, according to the EEOC report cited above. There is also research which shows that women who have been sexually harassed at work are financially impacted years afterwards. Should we assume the same is true for men who have been harassed?

The Center for American Progress published an article last week that crunches the data. Mostly women have filed reports of sexual misconduct, but Business Insider reports that

It’s unsurprising, then, that 73% of the women who said they had been sexually harassed at work also said that they never reported it. Of the men that said they were sexually harassed at work, 81% said they never reported it.  Sexual harassment isn’t a Hollywood, tech, or comedy world issue — in fact, it affects everyone, 11/10/17

The BI article uses a MSN poll to examine who the targets of sexual harassment have been, depressingly concluding that huge numbers of women and men have been harassed at work.

Not so hidden costs in the workplace.

Sexual misconduct costs the employers – large settlements have been revealed. When Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox Broadcasting, it was reported $13 million was paid to women while he was at Fox. Fox reportedly also paid $20 million to Gretchen Carlson because of O’Reilly, and another $32 million left O’Reilly’s bank account due to another woman. That is $65,000,000 paid out because of the actions of one person: Bill O’Reilly.

Barron’s reports that investors are starting to look at company practices, since the payouts and bad publicity harms the companies.

While sexual harassment has many causes, it tends to flourish when workplace culture is poor and corporate governance, weak. A dearth of women in the workplace, particularly in board and executive positions, and a lack of gender parity in opportunity and pay, are also contributing factors that have begun to attract investors’ attention.

Companies can purchase employment practices liability insurance, which covers payments due to misconduct. It’s hard to ascertain how much sexual misconduct in the workplace costs employers each year. The last study published, was published almost 30 years ago. 

A much-quoted US survey, answered by personnel and human resources directors and equal-opportunity offices representing 3.3 million employees at 160 corporations, came to the conclusion that a typical Fortune 500 company with 23,750 employees lost $6.7 million a year because of absenteeism, low productivity and staff turnover as a result of sexual harassment.

Will the media coverage focusing on high profile offenders impact other workplaces?

In 2011 a maid, Nafissatou Diallo, at the Sofitel New York Hotel claimed that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then International Monetary Fund head, attacked her and forced her to perform oral sex on him. They later settled a civil suit with a payment to her and her attorneys for $1.5 million. There was a push, ultimately unsuccessful, to require hotels to make panic devices available to their staff. Would this be a good time to try that again? Hotel unions are starting to lobby the hotels and city councils into requiring wireless panic buttons, and increasingly hotels are supplying them to their staff. Chicago passed an ordinance requiring hotels to provide them.

Unite Here, an international hospitality union, surveyed hospitality workers in Chicago and released a report entitled Hands Off Pants On:

Last year, Unite Here surveyed roughly 500 of its Chicago area members who work as housekeepers and servers in hotels and casinos. Of those surveyed—many of whom were immigrants and women of color—77 percent of casino workers and 58 percent of hotel workers reported that they had been sexually harassed by a guest, and 56 percent of those hotel workers said they felt unsafe on the job following the harassment.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich continues to write and advocate for low income workers. She spoke with Slate earlier this month about how living from hand to mouth limits workers options in reporting or rebuffing sexual advances.


Some hospitality workers are creating their own organizations to work with small businesses on preventing sexual harassment of employees by both other employees and customers. In New Orleans, 2 different organizations have been started.

It isn’t just in hospitality, it’s also in hospitals.

Perhaps the most recent notorious, but not isolated case of medical sexual misconduct is that of Dr. Ricardo Cruciani, who has been accused so far by 17 women of sexual abuse at his clinic, in the hospital, and in other medical facilities. The AP reported that the doctor would withhold medical treatment as a punishment if the women refused or dodged his demands. 

Nurses have been sexualized through the media, on Halloween, and have to deal with harassment with both coworkers and patients. Twenty years ago a study found that

Fifty-seven percent of those responding reported personal experience with some aspect of sexual harassment, and 26% reported being victimized by physical assault while on the job. About one third of those who indicated they had been sexually harassed also had been physically assaulted. Patients/clients were the most frequent perpetrators of sexual harassment and physical assault, while physicians committed over half of the sexual assaults.’ 

One effective, but costly, way of preventing many assault cases would be to have more people in the room. There may be cameras set up in patient rooms to monitor the patients, but should there also be cameras in stairwells, nursing stations, and other areas where people have been assaulted.

Don’t act like an animal.

Two guests on a recent Talking Animals (11/22/17) told host Duncan Strauss that sexual misconduct is pretty common in the field of animal rescue. One cited common money saving policies of having people share rooms (and even beds) when traveling for the organization, even if they were of opposite gender. That seems like a pretty easy fix: Don’t do that. 

Will anything change?

Twenty-six years ago, Anita Hill publicly accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. You can read Time magazine’s contemporaneous coverage here.  Putting someone on the Supreme Court of the United States who has been so publicly accused of sexual harassment certainly sent a signal to women about reporting sexual misconduct.

How can workplaces create environments to prevent sexual misconduct? Have more women in management and in industries in general. Believe people when they say there is a problem. Set policies and enforce them. Train people. Investigate all reports and punish wrongdoers.

For a start.