Sexual harassment: It’s still insidious —  and a potential career-ender

Personnel Matters

Much of the national news this year has been dominated by stories involving the Governor of the State of New York. At first, he was seen as a “star” in his handling of the COVID-19 response; later, he found himself embroiled in controversy. Regardless of your political orientation, the quickly changing trajectory of his career should be of great interest and a “wake-up call” to all supervisors, managers and executives. Not only were the lives of many people affected by his actions, but his own decade-spanning career also ended in disgrace. Why? Allegations of sexual harassment!

What should those of us in business conclude from this episode? That how we conduct our lives, both personally and professionally, is important. Not only to those who work for and around us, but to our own careers as well.

As employers and leaders, we should not assume that our position or reputation permits us to engage in behavior that is illegal or unethical. Sexual harassment is both! Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The law applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, as well as government and labor organizations. But sexual harassment is also unethical; it is an abuse of power and position by those in authority.

Examples of sexual harassment include offering or implying some benefit at work for providing sexual favors (quid pro quo), unwelcome physical touching, making sexual remarks to or about a person, telling jokes that have a lewd or sexual content or even displaying sexually explicit images on a computer screen or one’s desk where they can be seen by others.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives about 12,000 complaints of sexual harassment every year. That doesn’t sound like a large number in a country with a labor force of more than 150 million persons. But these are only the cases that make it to the EEOC; the numbers do not include charges brought through state or fair employment practice agencies. The numbers also do not include allegations that were brought within a company and settled internally. Further, a CNBC survey conducted a few years ago found that 20 percent of working adults reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, and another national survey conducted the following year found that most sexual harassment goes unreported. These statistics indicate that sexual harassment at work is still problematic, and so are its collateral results.

Sexual harassment is not just a malady of the individual perpetrator. Employers and company leadership also bear responsibility for what takes place within the organization and what they allow to occur. All employees deserve a workplace where they can feel safe and free from predatory and unwelcome behavior. But companies should also be concerned with preventing sexual harassment from a strategic perspective. Sexual harassment can result in damage to a company’s reputation and the loss of talented personnel at all levels of the organization, both its victims and its perpetrators.

What can companies do to protect their employees from the adverse effects of sexual harassment?

  • Adopt a clear, “zero tolerance,” sexual harassment policy.
  • Take all complaints seriously, respond immediately and investigate thoroughly.
  • Follow through on your policy — no exceptions based on rank, popularity or political influence.
  • Prevent retaliation against those who file a complaint.

Organizations should also train and develop all employees in the basics of sexual harassment, including bystander intervention. But the focus should not be only on the legal aspects of sexual harassment. Developing a professional, respectful culture is more likely to engage and influence employees and managers than just emphasizing “the law.” While understanding the law is essential, it is equally important to balance that perspective with additional guidance and examples that reflect a higher standard — the company’s values, policies and culture.

A major life lesson is that behaviors have consequences. In the situation cited at the beginning of this column, sexual harassment was the precipitating behavior that led to a toxic work environment and a governor’s resignation. But sexual harassment, while highly significant in itself, is only one potential concern. Any illegal, unethical or abusive behavior can lead to similar results. It is incumbent upon those responsible for the employment of others at work to set the right example and establish a culture of trust, respect and integrity. It will not only create a desirable work environment for all, but it will also preserve the reputation of your business and retain your organization’s most important asset — the talented people who contribute to its success.

About Dr. W. J. Heisler 10 Articles
Dr. W. J. Heisler is professor of human resource management and director of the MSHRM program at Troy University. He operates out of TROY’s site based in Chesapeake, Va. He holds Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Syracuse University and worked for more than 20 years in management and executive positions in human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding. Contact: wheisler@troy.edu.

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