Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

27-01-2021

Posted By: Guest Blogger Chad Olms

Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The Problem

Over the past 25 years, I have worked for 10 different organizations in both the private and public sectors. In this time, I have noticed that women’s workplace safety issues, and specifically sexual harassment, are often handled improperly or even completely ignored.  The following statistics demonstrate the scope and severity of this problem:

  • Sixty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).
  • Over 85 percent of people who experience sexual harassment never file a formal legal charge, and approximately 70 percent of employees never even complain internally (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).

The following are additional statistics from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report that studied sexual harassment incidents in the workplace over a 14-year period:

  • For each year in this period, between 84%-88% of complainants were female employees.
  • During this 14-year period, formal complaints actually decreased by almost 30%.
  • In that same time period, EEOC investigations that found the allegations to be “unsubstantiated” increased by 12% (https://www.eeoc.gov/statistics, 2020).

These EEOC statistics are even more concerning as it appears to show that alleged victims are increasingly more hesitant to report incidents.  Furthermore, even when incidents are reported it appears the investigations are increasingly decided against the complainant.  These numbers could suggest that false complaints have increased, or it could represent a much more alarming trend: since investigations are increasingly finding claims to be “unsubstantiated,” many employees are becoming more hesitant to report harassment.

Because of a number of high-profile sexual harassment/assault allegations in recent years, most companies and federal agencies have become adept at writing and distributing their “anti-harassment” policies.  However, in my experience the actual responses to incidents and enforcement of their own policies can be extremely lacking.  I have been involved in many cases over the years that involved an aspect of women’s safety and/or sexual harassment/assault.  I have also had many conversations with female friends and colleagues about their own experiences with sexual harassment or other women’s workplace safety issues.  Unfortunately, the common theme from all these experiences is that organizations often respond improperly to these types of incidents.

The following are just a few incidents out of many that have been reported to me over the past 25 years:

  • A male employee repeatedly and inappropriately complimented a female employee’s appearance, and even improperly touched her on several occasions.  When it was reported to a male supervisor, he questioned her perspective on the incidents and tried to convince the female employee not to file a formal complaint.
  • A male upper-level executive made highly inappropriate comments and gestures to a female employee in the presence of other male colleagues.  No formal investigation was conducted, and no action was taken against the executive.
  • A female student intern filed a sexual harassment complaint against an older male executive.  The organization refused to conduct an investigation, and fired the female intern.

Women Who Have Been Sexually Harassed

Even though these only represent a few examples, the previously mentioned statistics demonstrate they are not isolated incidents.  In fact, it suggests that many organizations either ignore or respond inappropriately to allegations of sexual harassment.

Solutions

While these statistics and anecdotes paint a bleak picture, organizations can still right the ship relatively quickly and cheaply.  Most organizations already have some type of written policy regarding sexual harassment.  However, where many organizations fail is in the enforcement of those policies.  A policy is just a piece of paper if it is not enforced or guilty parties are not held accountable.  One of the most common roadblocks to proper enforcement is that the Human Resources personnel investigating the allegations are subordinate to management officials who often prefer to cover up these types of incidents.  As a result, management officials can easily influence investigators into delegitimizing the allegations and closing the case without any action.  An easy solution to this problem is for organizations to hire an outside investigator to conduct the investigation, write the report, and provide an objective assessment with recommendations.

Another challenge in dealing with sexual harassment incidents is compartmentalization.  Many organizations bestow the entire life cycle of their response to an incident (intake, investigation, interviews, corroboration, assessment, decision-making, mitigation, discipline, and compensation) to the same department or individual(s).  This type of compartmentalization can lead to less robust investigations, as well as a lack of transparency and accountability.  In order to avoid that pitfall, organizations should employ a multi-disciplinary team to handle the entire response to the allegations.  This team should include representatives from human resources, management, legal, EEO/civil rights, and safety/security.  Each representative will bring their own expertise to the team, and enhance the ability of the organization to properly investigate, assess, and mitigate potential concerns.  Most importantly, the use of multi-disciplinary teams can prevent compartmentalization and cover-ups.  This type of thorough and impartial investigation should be mandatory for all sexual harassment allegations.  However, it is also equally important for organizations to respect due process and the rights of both the accuser and the accused by not rushing to judgment or issuing discipline prematurely.  

Another potential solution is a tactic I have rarely if ever seen employed by organizations.  Instead of just treating a sexual harassment allegation as a conduct issue, organizations should also consider it as a potential workplace violence issue.  This is due to the fact that sexual harassment can leave victims feeling fearful and helpless, while turning the office into a hostile work environment.  More importantly, unchecked sexual harassment can occasionally escalate into more aggressive forms of harassment or even assault.  

Yet another solution to avoid these typical pitfalls is training.  Most organizations do require employees to take annual training on sexual harassment and other conduct issues.  However, this training usually consists of a bland and relatively general online training or even just a review of the organization’s policy.  Training is more impactful when delivered by an experienced instructor in-person (or a live virtual training), and even more so when the class includes interactive learning opportunities as well as role-playing scenarios.  Organizations should also offer women’s safety courses as well as optional basic self-defense seminars.

The final option for improving incident response is organizational transparency.  The entire process of sexual harassment prevention and response should be completely transparent, and allow all employees the opportunity to be involved.  One option is for organizations to form committees or working groups comprised of representatives from all levels and departments to examine the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.  Another option is to distribute anonymous surveys to all employees asking for feedback on the following topics:

  • The organization’s sexual harassment policy
  • The organization’s enforcement of the policy
  • Feedback on what the organization has done well
  • Feedback on what the organization needs to improve on
  • Has the employee been the victim of sexual harassment?
  • Has the employee witnessed sexual harassment?
  • Did the organization respond to these incidents appropriately?
  • Is the organization’s training program effective?

And most importantly, the organization should publish the results of the survey to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and improving their response to allegations of sexual harassment.

How Men Can Do Better

It appears that many organizations have failed to properly address their response to allegations of sexual harassment, but male employees and supervisors specifically also need to improve how they view and respond to this problem.  In my work experiences in the private and public sectors over the past 25 years, I have encountered many men who simply do not understand the gravity, scope, and effects of sexual harassment on female employees.  I believe most men do understand that sexual harassment is a bad thing in theory, but really do not comprehend how it actually affects female colleagues.  Many men think sexual harassment only occurs when the perpetrator intends to be offensive or inappropriate.  In reality, harassment is mostly in the eye of the beholder; if it makes someone uncomfortable then it needs to stop regardless of the intent.  Even if men are not intending to be offensive, if they continue the behavior then it becomes sexual harassment.  In order to avoid this, many men need to do a better job at putting themselves in the position of a woman who is being sexually harassed.  Only then can they truly feel the discomfort and helplessness.  It would be helpful for men to imagine themselves as a woman interacting with a male coworker, and then think about what words and actions would make them uncomfortable.  In addition, men should avoid initiating hugs or any type of physical contact with a female coworker in the workplace.  It is certainly possible that some female coworkers would accept such physical contact in the workplace, but there are also many female employees who would be uncomfortable or even offended by this type of behavior.  Finally, men also should consider their “distance and positioning” when interacting with a female coworker.  

It is important to note that sexual harassment is not just men victimizing women, and that men can also frequently become victims.  Sexual harassment can affect all genders and orientations in all possible combinations.  However, it is also important for men to understand that sexual harassment directed at women by men also carries with it the additional aspect of physical intimidation and potential violence.

How All of Us Can Do Better

This has certainly been an incredibly difficult year for many people in this country and throughout the world.  Unfortunately, we frequently hear many voices on TV who try to divide us and justify disrespecting anyone who has a different viewpoint.  As a society, we need to do a better job at ignoring these messages of divisiveness and instead use the issue of sexual harassment as an opportunity to come together as a unified community.  Because regardless of who you are or where you live, one thing we should all agree on is that every human being deserves to work in a safe environment that is free of harassment and fear.  

 

Chad Olms is the owner and lead consultant for Arx Security Consulting, and is based out of Fort Collins, CO.  Mr. Olms has 23 years of experience working for four different federal law enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies.  Mr. Olms has served as a Regional Security Director, a Special Agent for the U.S. Secret Service, an Investigator for the Department of Defense, and an Investigator for the Department of Justice.  During his federal service, Mr. Olms has conducted over 1000 investigations concerning threats to government officials, workplace violence, employee misconduct, fraud, counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, as well as many other traditional criminal investigations.  Mr. Olms is certified as an Active Shooter Instructor by the Department of Homeland Security and the ALICE Training Institute and holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice, with a concentration in Homeland Security and Intelligence Analysis from Michigan State University.  Learn more on his website: ARXSecurityConsulting.com or 970-402-8807.

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