Sexual harassment has been in the news a lot lately. From Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood to executives at Fox News and Uber, titans have fallen, and companies everywhere are feeling a more scrutinizing gaze toward their harassment policies and track records.
Whether you believe this is a long-overdue shift in gender relations or an of-the-moment pushback in response to a strained political environment, the way that HR departments and professionals prepare for, handle and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace has changed.
What is workplace sexual harassment?
In the wake of all this attention, many people are still left wondering: what technically is sexual harassment? The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, offers the following definition of sexual harassment.
- “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”
- “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”
- “Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.”
- “Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
- “The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that definition. Some people are surprised to find that sexual harassment is not always between a man and a woman and is not always of a sexual nature. A harasser is not always even an employee or supervisor. If an employee is being harassed by a customer, client or subcontractor, action should still be taken — and a policy should be in place — to protect employees.
How good are you at spotting sexual harassment? This quiz will tell you.
Why is sexual harassment such a problem?
Workplace harassment can lead to a slew of negative impacts for the victim — and for the organization — when left unaddressed.
Emotional and physical health
Many victims of sexual harassment describe feelings of stress and anxiety, sometimes for years, related to the harassment. Pervasive harassment can erode victims’ self esteem, undermine their motivation at work and even strain personal relationships.
In addition to mental and emotional strain, severe stress, depression and anxiety can cause strong physical symptoms. These can include loss of appetite, weight fluctuations, headaches, sleep disturbances, suppressed immune system and more.
Harassment can sometimes result in lost wages, demotions or unpaid leave. Future opportunities and references can be withheld. Sometimes victims will leave a job, even if it means jeopardizing a career or taking a pay loss, just to avoid the harassment. These can all leave victims struggling under heavy financial burdens.
Finally, a workplace where sexual harassment is repeatedly witnessed but not addressed is damaging for everyone, even those not directly involved. It can create an atmosphere of fear (what if I’m next?), unaccountability (so-and-so gets away with everything), stigma (that person must deserve how they’re treated) and toxicity (if so-and-so gets away with bad behavior, I bet I can, too).
Beyond that, persistent sexual harassment has been shown to have a negative impact on an organization’s ability to function at its best. Absenteeism, low productivity, high employee turnover and undiscovered talent are just some of the consequences of systemic sexual harassment.
Why is it important to have a sexual harassment policy?
The first and simplest step toward preventing sexual harassment at work is to institute a sexual harassment policy. Beyond defining rules for appropriate behavior, a policy serves several important purposes.
A policy sets expectations. A clear and thorough policy establishes clear rules for identifying and dealing with sexual harassment claims. This makes it easier for victims and witnesses to spot harassment when it happens and guides HR in dealing with accusations.
It protects employees. Simply having a policy – and making sure employees are familiar with it – may discourage behavior that could develop into harassment. It may also make victims or witnesses more confident in reporting incidents.
It protects the company. A well written policy gives the company backing to discipline or terminate an employee for bad behavior, helping them avoid drawn out legal cases or public backlash.