Why Training and HR Fail to Stop Sexual Harassment: What Organizations and Individuals Can Do

One of the patterns emerging in recent sexual harassment cases brought to light by the #MeToo movement is the failure of human resources (HR) departments in many organizations to respond to sexual harassment complaints from employees. In fact, we’ve heard example after example of HR enabling retaliation against accusers, protecting powerful men who are accused, or simply dismissing complaints with only cursory investigations or none at all. Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell of the New York Times explain that although employees are told to report mistreatment to HR, HR is often not the right place to go. The authors explain that there are various inherent conflicts in HR’s role:

  • HR is charged with protecting the company from liability and therefore faces a conflict of interest when also expected to protect employees. In other words, HR’s main client is the company and the senior leaders.
  • Scheiber and Creswell note that “even if human resources officials conclude that the accused should be disciplined or fired, they typically have no independent authority to make it happen.”
  • HR personnel are subject to the same power dynamics as other employees if they recommend termination of a valuable employee and incur the wrath of a senior executive — their own job could be at risk.

Another issue the #MeToo movement is bringing to light is that sexual harassment prevention training does not prevent sexual harassment. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes that research shows that corporate sexual harassment training, at best, only teaches people basic information. At worst, it can make people uncomfortable and reinforce gender stereotypes. Most often, the training is rejected as a waste of time because people view it as either legalistic or impractical because it does not teach people how to stop harassment when it occurs. In fact, most sexual harassment training exists because the Supreme Court mandated it in workplaces in 1998 so companies could avoid liability in sexual harassment lawsuits. Most organizations are just checking this box for their own protection and not for actual prevention of sexual harassment.

Miller suggests that, to prevent harassment in all forms, “companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect.” Here are some ways to create this type of culture:

  • Offer bystander training to give everyone the skills to stop disrespectful behavior by coworkers.
  • Involve white men in delivering bystander training so discouraging sexual harassment is seen as important to white men as it is to women and minorities.
  • Promote more women. Miller notes that companies with more women in management have fewer sexual harassment incidents.
  • Pay and promote men and women equally.
  • Create gender-balanced teams, hiring panels, and performance review panels.
  • Give dozens of people in the organization responsibility for receiving complaints so people can talk to someone they feel comfortable with and are not limited to HR, where they may not feel safe.
  • Institute proportional consequences for harassers. Consequences should reflect the severity of the offense. Automatic firing is not the solution. Nip small offenses in the bud.

If you work in an organization without the supporting practices and structures described above, Marty Langelan shares these tested tactics for discouraging sexual harassment on the Ms. blog:

  1. Use an all-purpose statement such as “Stop harassing women. I don’t like it — no one likes it. Show some respect.”
  2. Name the behavior, and don’t smile when you say it.
  3. Use an interruption tactic, such as a time-out gesture, to cut off the behavior.
  4. Force the person to explain him- or herself. Langelan suggests asking questions such as “Why do you think it’s okay to ask me to give you a massage?”
  5. Organize consistent group action against a persistent harasser. Agree on what you will all say to him or her, and repeat that statement whenever the bad behavior occurs.
  6. Document the incident on the spot with your phone’s camera or a written record.
  7. Use short, direct statements to give the harasser feedback on why his or her behavior is inappropriate and what behavior would be better.
  8. Use basic self defense if you are physically attacked. Take an aikido class if you can.
  9. If you are a bystander, speak up.
  10. Recruit unexpected allies, including the bully’s buddies.

Langelan recommends using consistent, everyday interventions to redefine workplace cultures. If your organization is not doing enough to create a safe workplace culture, organize your colleagues to work together. You can make a difference, but not alone.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on March 5, 2018.